This post has been updated to clarify comments cited in the letter to the editor.
Last week, two days after it happened, I hid the newspapers. When four bleary-eyed boys arrived at the breakfast table, only the sports sections were available for consumption along with their cereal.
This is not something we do lightly in our house. But the youngest is a curious and sensitive 11-year-old. Although he was fully aware of what had transpired 48 hours earlier at Virginia Tech University, he didn't need to see a photograph of the perpetrator brandishing his guns on the front pages. Sure, maybe he noticed them on the newspaper boxes when he walked to school. But I couldn't stand the thought of these images strewn around among the latest food and fashion news.
The question of how to limit kids' exposure to violent news media is a tough one for parents in an era when information and pictures travel at light speed and kids can't wait to tell each other the latest developments in the school yard. (This Associated Press story has some hints about that.)
To me, what's equally challenging is helping children and teens decipher the breathless and unceasing TV coverage, columnists' outrage and sensational headlines that they glimpse or hear about at school or from friends. And encouraging them to question it.
Because when the talking heads can't explain the unexplainable, they too often resort to over-the-top rants about evil, wickedness and mental illness all in the same breath. As if we are somehow safer if we can just believe the perpetrator is something other than a person in grave distress. If only we can convince ourselves he or she is a monster separate and apart from the rest of humanity.
Just recall the words used by pundits and news anchors to describe the gunman, Seung-Hui Cho, in the immediate aftermath of the Virginia shootings: demented, deranged, lunatic, evil, "unintelligible moron," to name just a few.
It took almost a week before there was any acknowledgment that Cho's deeply disturbing life story was also a tragedy, and that his family were victims too.
As one irate newspaper reader complained in a letter to the editor, the coverage showed little understanding of mental illness. Rather than presenting it as an illness of the brain, the reader said, it portrayed mental illness as "a wilful choice to do evil."
Some of the most telling lines were buried in many inches of weekend copy about Cho's life story. But they were fodder for our household discussions. From the Globe and Mail:
What the family had undoubtedly hoped for Mr. Cho was a track mirroring that of his sister, who, playing the stock role in an almost stereotypical immigrant success story, was propelled by hard-labouring parents within easy reach of the American Dream.
Instead, Mr. Cho seem to wilt in her shadow, as if stuck in a parallel, failed universe. He was the embodiment of isolation, a loveless man for whom not a single person has come forward to say, "He was my friend."
There was silence in our family room after that passage was read aloud. "Sad. That's so sad," murmured the burly 17-year-old, to whom a life without friends is unfathomable.
A next-door neighbour told the New York Times that when people spoke to Cho, he ignored them as if they were not there. "Like he had a broken heart."
Even as his own mother fretted and prayed over him, other relatives showed disdain toward the silent, haunted child.
"Why couldn't somebody help him?" wondered the 14-year-old curled up beside me on the couch, posing the essential question at the heart of the tragedy - the one question that has no answer.
I read these snippets aloud to my children in an attempt to counter the black-and-white/good-and-evil/monster-versus-human messages so often peddled in the press. Because life - and stories - are much more complicated than that.
You may not believe the perpetrator deserves an ounce of the sympathy accorded his victims. And the details of this story will likely take years to unravel.
But there's one thing you can't argue with, and it's what I hope my kids will remember: Seung-Hui Cho was once a little child, just like the 32 other people whose lives were so tragically cut short. That's something we all have in common.