Grief and Grace

In this Monday's newspaper kiosk on the central Christmas market square in Strasbourg, France

Monday, December 17th. Newspaper kiosk on the central Christmas Market square in Strasbourg, France

In light of the dark events of this past week, I can’t bring myself to write or post for you what I’d promised, a colorful whirlwind travel trek through the first half of our family’s 2012 and then the shimmering coziness of our first Swiss Christmas. All that unscathed comfort and plush intactness would be grossly misplaced here.

I’ve tried for a few days, I truly have, to direct my thoughts to those tidy little post outlines I had all lined up for you, to all my lovely accompanying photographs.

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But I cannot. I will not. Those posts, the very thought of them, sicken me. Writing these sentences, in fact, also sickens me, and has made my hands go icy and my stomach reel, my head’s been pounding since first hearing the news, and I haven’t been sleeping. I imagine the effect has been similar for you.

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So why, then, not escape the horror, you and I, escape even virtually into some exotic locale, some breezy narrative I could so easily offer with its pleasant, bloodless images? Isn’t right now the perfect time to relieve ourselves from pain, not relive it?

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Why willingly submit ourselves to more sorrow by venturing deeper into it? Why dwell there? Why dwell here? Why dwell, as I plan to do, for many posts – for as many as I can write, which, by the way will never be enough – why dwell in the dreary and draining landscape of loss and sorrow, and why now during this, our long-awaited Season of Light?

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Why in our lightness dwell in the reality of another’s – a stranger’s – darkness? Why dwell in the darkness of grief and loss and agony and in a sort of loneliness that defies description when with just the turn of an inch or two, the click of a key, we can escape into merriment and togetherness and safety, where we can refresh our heavy hearts?

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The answers to those questions should be obvious.

But I don’t know. Maybe they’re not.

Wisdom and life experience tell me that what I’m getting at is perhaps not all that obvious.

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And so, without apologizing for this shift in the direction of my blog, I do want to explain my rationale for doing so.

I’m going to dwell on death, the ultimate passage. And I’m going to dwell on it for as long as it takes.

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This will lead to posts and, I hope, discussions with you on many related topics, including the nature of grief, the singular complications of parental grief, the necessity and problematic of communal mourning, the duration and contours and reasons beneath “complicated” grief, the outdated and perpetuated though erroneous theories versus current studies on traumatic loss and adjustment.

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The gamut. Or as close as I can get to “gamut” on our computer screens. Now is the time, a friend told me this weekend, to share the contents of my other book, Grief and Grace: Collected Voices on Loss and Living Onward. I’m grateful for that nudge, and am glad to do be able to do so here, but hope my motivation for doing so won’t be misunderstood, that turning in my blog to that book (which is sitting in the approval stage with another publishing house), is not about promoting that book. That is certainly not my rationale for turning our conversation here toward the realms of death and other major losses.

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My rationale is simple: It would be morally irresponsible – even reprehensible – and untrue to my personal experience and most profound convictions to do anything but share all I know and feel about these realities.

I am a mother who has buried the child of her heart, a gorgeous son lost to sudden and tragic death.

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And contrary to the glib and exasperating psycho-babble sound bytes perpetuated today, I am without question defined by that loss.

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I am defined – all my human and spiritual interactions, my values and aspirations, how I talk and write and sing and walk and drive my kids to go sledding in the mountains and how I greet the postman and how I buy my groceries and chat with the cashier – all I am and will ever be is defined by this major, still-unfathomable loss.

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Whether this agrees with whatever you have absorbed from the pop psychology running through western media or not is immaterial to the fact that you, too, are – we all are – defined by what and whom we have lost.

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Or what we will lose.
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Because of this great loss in my small life, the losses of 26 families in a distant town in Connecticut has throttled my core in a way I can scarcely share in words. It’s as if everything I see and hear and touch and taste takes me to them, these families who are complete strangers to me. I see them today in their homes where they’ve stumbled upon gifts bought last week for the now-dead-but-not-yet-buried, gifts they’d hidden under the rafters.

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What happens when they find those gifts? Can we even imagine? How does one howl and gasp for breath when huddled under rafters? And without letting the rest of the county hear?

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These are the same homes from which just last Thursday they sent out annual family holiday cards, the ones with pictures of smiling children with their smiling parents, cards arriving today in other happy homes of friends and family around the world, some of whom have flown in to be close. Some of whom have remained paralyzed in their corner of the universe, unable to find a way to reach out in word or in deed. This, because they cannot themselves reach around the vastness of what has happened. Who can? Or because they want to wait until the worst is over, which, they mistakenly think – we all mistakenly think – is the funeral, after which moment they’ll try to take contact.

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But how? What should they say? Do? And so, some of them, they’ll do nothing. Others, thank heavens, will rush in and do anonymous, beautiful and saintly much. And still, according to studies, most onlookers will take a guess that some months down the road (always months and months too early in the process) things are back to normal.

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Which they never will be.

There is no more “normal”.

And that’s the clencher.

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These are homes where gifts sit unopened under a tree whose glinting lights seem to mock the lightlessness this mother or that father feels from head to toe. It is a corporeal eclipse whose obscurity is experienced in measures of weight, in ounces, pounds or tons: It weighs on every emerging thought like an anchor pulling to frozen tautness the buoyancy of a floundering boat. These strings of lights only add to the indecent flashes of the paparazzi lurking everywhere in the streets of a town that is now more foreign to them than the moon.

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The mother yanked out the string of lights that second night after sitting for hours looking into the blurry, numbing depths for three hours straight. Maybe an hour too long, her husband dared to suggest.

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“Please, don’t plug them back in,” she cried at her visiting mother-in-law, who only wanted to just add “the teensiest bit of festive cheer,” she said, her voice stiff and useless like an old picket fence on the beach, hedging back a tidal wave of tears.

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“Please,” the mother whispers, gaunt and listless from no food or drink for five days. She’s growing weak, suppressing an unfamiliar, frightening rage. “I can’t take it. I can not take the light.”

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Under the tree small, fancily wrapped boxes sit, a mockery, too, with a six-year old’s name which, when uttered, sends blood engorging the throat, rushing to the cheeks, draining from every limb. The taste and smell of blood. The taste and sight that awakens the mother every time she tries to lie down. She is resting on her six-year-old’s bed. But there is no rest. Not there. Not anywhere.

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And there are those other boxes. She’d wrapped them with her daughter herself, the child the media has now appropriated as their own and has renamed an “angel”.
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But she has a name.

Somebody say her name!

And everyone, please do not ever stop saying her name. She was real. She is real. We named her to pin her into this world. Her name binds her to us, to the living. She’ll always remain here.

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These are homes where, if I dare write this without also “appropriating” things myself, every human capacity is strained beyond anything anyone can fully imagine. What has happened – The Event – is already moving into the historical realm for those who produce and consume what’s “news.” But the truest story, the one of soul-stretching grief and vertiginous absence, is only scarcely taking seed. The families themselves, if uninitiated to tragic loss, don’t even know this. They cannot begin to envision what lies ahead…

After the funeral…
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After the holidays…
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After the soothing circle of co-mourners uncoils and life must continue as it, in its cruel benevolence must. . .

The real story will last beyond the next news story. And the next. And far beyond the next. It will, in fact, outlive all of our collective attention spans placed end to end for years to come. It will last for the rest of all of the survivors’ living days and into generations.

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Let me pause here and be clear: In case I give the impression that I know something about this specific terror, I do not. I want to acknowledge quickly and definitively that I know only a fraction of the smallest part of what these families of the slaughtered in Newtown now know and will yet learn. The circumstances of my loss are so utterly unlike those of these losses, they should not be uttered in the same hour, let alone in the same breath. It’s dangerous to print them in the same post. This terror stands alone and brings me to my knees.

I do, however, know something about life after death, meaning the life of survivors after the sudden, violent and tragic death of a beloved, and after five years of living and researching in the depths, I feel confident I can speak with a particle of authority on the topic, if only generally. If you’ll let me.

So back to my original point. Such dizzying, catastrophic loss as we feel enshrouds us is not the sort from which we turn and easily flee. We cannot, if we’re serious about our covenant to mourn with those who mourn, walk out of this tragedy the way we walk out of a cinema after a violent movie. After entertaining ourselves with cinematographic bloodshed, the movie ends and we stride into the light, into reality. Hearts maybe still pounding, maybe blinking a bit, we shake our heads and fumble for our keys. We scan the sunny parking lot for our car. We climb in, buckle up for safety, and drive away, humming. We drive neatly away from the nightmare.

We mustn’t, if we’re serious about apprenticing as Saviors to others in this case and in any to come, drive away. What we must do is dwell longer than we think is needed and might be comfortable or convenient, right there, in the victims’ darkness. And while it’s a warm sentiment and a good start to compassion, we must not become mere beneficiaries of another’s catastrophe – “I’ll hug my children so much tighter tonight, thanks to your devastation,” – not, at least, without responding, also, in some visceral and practical way to their suffering.

And we must not, at all costs, encourage a gospel of fake fluorescent strobe lights forced into the eyes of those already blinded by horror. This is not a time to tighten our grins, clench our grips, and insist that the decimated rejoice in all things, rejoice and be merry. ‘Tis the season!

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That tendency, above nearly all things, is antipathy itself – anti pathos –not compassion, which feels with, and is the essence of Christianity itself because it is the nature of God Himself. It is the power of active imagination that enacts the power of the atonement. To this, to the passionate core of this painful life, is where we follow God, where He calls us to fix our hearts.

**

The images that accompany this and my coming posts are, like the pictures from my last post, taken from my life, my immediate surroundings, by me. Through my lens I invite you to see what I, a bereaved mother, see. Wherever I might be in the coming weeks, you can be sure that’s also where my camera lens will be.

But my mind will be in Newtown.

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27 thoughts on “Grief and Grace

  1. Beautiful post…. Visually beautiful and thought provoking. I am very interested in these posts because I want to be one who can mourn with others in a meaningful way.

    • Dear Jonette, I thank you for being here and for being who you are, a compassionate, fearless soul. I’m sorry I’ve posted with typos, but I’m a little fatigued and should have given myself a break before pressing send. Thanks everyone for forgiving. I count on much feedback, many questions, I have so much to share from many valuable sources, material that I think will make a difference in absolutely everyone’s life. Sounds bold, but this topic drives me to uncharacteristic boldness. I just love you and your family, Jonette. God bless us, everyone.

  2. I, maybe like others, am usually numbed by such events. What to even call it? A tragedy, an incident, an event? Really, is there a word? I cannot, as you have articulated well here and in the past, even pretend to understand what you feel and what those parents feel. I can only relate to “events” (there’s that word again) in my life that cause “similar” (oh really?) feelings in my bosom. Only one other time in my life can I remember screaming out in emotional (can I use that word here?) pain, and that was during a repentance process long ago. Until a day after the CT shooting. One morning while laying in my warm bed before rising, something caused me to ponder on this and I was moved uncharacteristically to private sobs for the world, for these parents, for you, for my own troubles, for those of others. Not in the sense of “why”. Only in a infinitessimally small way like I imagine that our Heavenly Father and His Son weep for the world. For what I hope is not the last time, I truly for that little instant cried out to the Lord. Even that small occasion a few days ago provided a small bit of comfort, one that I had never felt in that way.

    • Jack, I so appreciate your careful, self-deprecating words. That stance is where it all begins, I believe: not knowing and admitting one cannot know, yet yearning to know in an effort to engage and stay close. And of course we feel numbed, as you write, because this all goes so far beyond anyone’s normal radius of experience, and our hearts must literally tear somewhat to reach the distance. Still, will we ever come close to knowing? Not at all. How little we can fathom of each others’ pain, but that is why the challenge to know and to be like God is so great. The God we worship is a fully engaged, powerfully passionate Being, One who weeps alongside us and at all our pains, small or immense. I’m so touched by the image of you weeping and crying out as you tried to change something in your own life, and am also inspired by your humble, thoughtful response to the catastrophic life changes for which Sandy Hook is an emblem. I wonder: what is going on in a practical way on the eastern seaboard in response to this slaughter? (I, too, can’t find the right word. . .)

  3. I don’t have the ability to express anything about all of this. I do feel as if my dead dear ones have died all over again. This past week I have grieved more intensely for those I have lost than I have in many years. I don’t understand it.

    • And this is normal. But more than normal, it is healthy and indicative of the nature of grief as being there forever, never, as we are prone ot say in our culture that loves to tie things up, “healed” or ‘Gotten over.” The experience has been similar for me, Janina, and that ripping at the seams is, for me at least, a good thing, a physical reminder of the active longing that pulses under my life. Our experiences with grief can and should, at least at some point as we move forward from impact, make us more sympathetic to others’ grief. If that’s not the case, then we’ve lost a chance to learn what we can learn from the rending.

  4. Hi Sister Melissa. This is Mayank from Singapore ward if you remember. Just came across your blog.
    This is a insightful and thought provoking article.
    Nothing in this world can compare to the pain and loss of of a parent who has to bury their child.
    It is wonderful you have started this discussion. In our materialist society, so bereft of any wholesome discussion on philosophy and life, mortality has been relegated to a hush-hush thing. In no other century has so little thought and effort been given to providing meaningful discourse to these fundamental questions of what it means to be a human? a mortal? And the fragility of our existence. While our world has made remarkable steps to provide technology, it seems now playing random games on our devices and “liking” things on facebook has become more important than a meaningful connection with our fellow travelers on this beautiful,fragile journey of life.

    From my point of view, senseless death of children provides the fundamental bottomline of a civilization. Everything – all economic,social,political systems – how society is organized can be distilled to a fundamental questions – Are the steps your society is taking improving the chances that every child that is born in this world – can have a precious childhood – full of love and acceptance and opportunity to gaze with wonder at our world and full of innocent curiosity to learn from it and the precious happiness of a child at one with the world – and can we provide for all the fundamentals of environment – food, clothing, shelter, a fulfilling education and most importantly SAFETY to children so that they may grow into people with strong characters who then take care of the world so that the next generation and the one after that and so on can have this same opportunity. And finally when our bodies fail us, can be ensure that each end is with dignity – in a bed surrounded by loved ones, as one accepts our transient passages.. comes to an acceptance with the journey one has had – in growing and learning and teaching and caring for those who come after us in the circles of life and go on the great beyond.

    And such tragic incidents like this show how far we fall short from this goal. Life is a gift, at once awe-inspiring full of wonder yet simultaneously so fragile so delicate – like a butterfly in hand. And no ideology, no excuse can be given for when we fall short to achieve that. When these potentials are taken away.. when this gift of life is taken away so soon.

    This is a never ending cycle of an ideal society— in perpetual cycle to end of time we can improve our society yet still fall short of this goal. There are diseases we cannot cure now which we hope to cure in future, unfortunate accidents happen in spite of all precautions – all these are tragic reminders of your own limited nature.. each such incident must be a reminder of what we can still improve..that those lives cut short are not forgotten but a pivot so can focus and improve so that our civilization makes small baby steps to higher states.

    But this is not acceptable. Senseless violence..allowing tools of violence to be distributed like candy in a society to people can feel good about themselves in a shallow mockery of what a true virtue is..this is not acceptable.. and as shallow and materialist our society has become.. to lost in possessions, and power and fame and little things.. lost the whole value systems.. of just a few centuries ago.. characteristics of gentlemen was.. it is a pity and tragic that it takes the senseless killing of little children – the ultimate treasures of a society – its future for a response to come up in a strong enough form.. for this blind society to be reminded how beautiful and fragile life is and how utterly disgusting and pathetic violence is.. no society that accepts violence as a means of reaching resolutions can hope to improve in quality.

    And I hope that each person takes this tragedy to put themselves in the place of these parents– no matter how fruitless the exercise is to try to understand this most haunting of losses and I hope the society moves forward to prevent it from happening again. Nothing else can ever hope to come close to providing a redemption for society as a whole and repentance for these gifts of life taken before they had even taken root.

    • Maynak, how wonderful to find you here, and yes, yes of course I remember you very well from Singapore, from our congregation where you first joined the church. I remember vividly details of that day. Thank you for taking time and lots of effort to be here and write so copiously.
      Your response is packed with sensitivity and even healthy outrage, both of which I’m glad to read. What other humane responses can there be but outrage and profound, stunned sorrow? You’ve hit on something else, too, which is the nature of compassion: To require of ourselves that we put ourselves in the place of others, that we exercise imaging and imagining what another’s pain must feel like. I know, sometimes it’s too much, and we shrink from it. I’ve done this. It takes such energy and focus. Many times I’ve heard this too, spoken in a half-whisper to my face, that the loss of one’s child is too horrible a possibility to contemplate, so horrible, in fact, that one “can’t go there.” And so one does not.. Period. One literally runs away. OS m as a girlfriend (and bereaved mother) put it, the loss hurts, and the leprosy doesn’t make it much better. I used to be in a position where I had to imagine this kind of loss, too, and I also found it completely unimaginable. So what do we do to train ourselves to be imagine, to be in another’s place? Doesn’t it begin with getting close, at least close enough to have a sensorial experience that alters us? I think so. For all sorts of reasons we run from ugliness, from illness, from inconvenience, from pain, all of which might slow us down, reroute our trajectories, be contagious. (??) The west perpetrates the mystification by hiding the dying, but just as destructive as that, the west does not speak of dying. At least, the west finds it unpalatable. we are al about youth, looking forward, and being happy. Death in such a party atmosphere is frankly a kill joy. As said the great cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead, “When a person is born we rejoice, and when they’re married we jubilate, but when they die we try to pretend nothing has happened.” This goes for onlookers as well as some bereaved themselves, oddly enough, who feel (especially in Christian contexts) that exhibiting signs of grief is weak and lacking in faith. I cannot underscore how damaging such a mindset is,and how far from gospel (and psychological) truth it lies. It is a weakness the West (and growing parts of the industrialized world) could be re-tutored in from other, perhaps more primitive cultures. Maynak, thank you for contributing to this discussion. Again, so glad to find you here!

      • Hi Melissa

        I think you have hit the nail on dead. The big irony that Death – as much as part of the circle of life as birth and pretty much the only certainty in life ( Death and Taxes) has been relegated to the attic. In all cultures, expressing of grief (esp for men ) is considered to be a sign of weakness and the worst part is – the “normal” is to accept it and “move on” – Really if you don’t “move on” as if nothing has happened in a few months – you are supposed to be clinically depressed. And when it’s not us who are bereaving but a friend, we are supposed to offer some hollow awkward platitudes.

        Like you said, all other rites of passage of society are provided adequate consideration except the final, most certain one.

        This past 50 odd years at least, the great truth about the ephemeral nature of our existence, mortality has been hushed up like a Taboo topic. If sex for example of a Taboo topic in past, it infinitely more tragic that Death – the great equalizer of Life, the other half of the circle has become a big Taboo. And like you said, we as a society are trying to escape and run from all the negative aspects – Old Age, Illness and Death.

        And I agree with you on the Primitive culture thing ( though calling them Primitive is a fallacy and one actively perpetrated to take over their lands easier). For example, the American Indians have this great tradition where you do not mourn the death – they “celebrate the life” – death is accepted as a part of nature. Everything that comes must go and is then replaced by the next thing in the circle of life, they have this tradition of funeral rites to pray for proper passage of the person and after that they sit around fire – and talk about the person’s life.. share memories, experiences and people laugh and cry and remember the person that was – and as they say as person lives on in the memories of the lives they touch – friends and family, even complete strangers – who knows how much a simple act of kindness by a stranger at the right time can impact a person’s life.

        That seems like a much more mature way of dealing with death..and that is where the death of children shows its true tragedy. Even if we consider the idea of “celebration of life” and a “good death” as the Romans said, it involves the idea of a life journey lived to the fullest and ending in the calm acceptance of death as a natural part of the life balance, even in a nuanced consideration of our mortality which our culture ( that seems to be advancing technologically at a rate proportional to the rate it is regression philosophically and spiritually!!) sadly lacks, even then this most profound of tragedy has no equal, no redemption.

        What I have seen in people who I knew that had to face the loss of child, I have admired their strength. After time puts a thick scar over their wounds, these are the people who fight the strongest to ensure another parent does not go through what they did and perhaps while it’s practically impossible for us to feel the depth of anguish and soul-wrenching pain they go through – the best way we can help them is to let me know though words and action that it is okay to not be okay, it is perfectly okay that you do not ” move on” – to ensure that we do not offer hollow empty platitudes but true sincerity. Remembrances do not need big monuments etc but just little things. In letting them know that the life of their child was not forgotten. And that even though they were here on earth for just a few moments, in those they touched lives, they lived and cried and laughed and played and by remembering those and remembering how they would feel, no child who has gone on in heaven will want to see their parent crying and destroying themselves.. to let them know that they will meet their loved ones again in the great beyond and in the short little blip of 80-100 years we call life.. it is perfectly okay to miss them everyday and remember them and feel that loss — until the end.. coz that pain is the symbol of love.. and it would be profoundly stupid to try to suppress it.. but even when they hold the pain.. know that others are there to share.. to perhaps carry on little life rituals – like feeding birds which lot of kids love doing etc.. imagining them to be with us.. like that and slowly perhaps when time has put a big scar tissue on the wounds to experience things they would have done with their kids.. had they been there. The true tragedy of life is that there is no dearth of misery and loss.. and for every parent that has lost a child.. there is a child in an orphanage or foster care or even street that has never found a parent.. that a way to remember that loss is by sharing that forward with an equal and reverse loss.. and through everything remembering that those that have passed on beyond the veil a bit before us are always a part of us and our lives and perhaps even looking out for us. The Jews have a wonderful notion – expressed in Kaddish – that we grow in the life spiritually not only for us but also our loved ones who have passed on.

        It is only through spiritual acceptance and remembrance can some sense be made and even then.. it has to be balanced by the realization of how precious life is and no matter what – a society has to learn and try to prevent such tragedy if it has to gain redemption and repentance as a whole. Sadly our society has regressed a lot – both in its spiritual growth and the priorities it accords ( too much to material wealth and tech and too little to the relationships and people). But slowly one individual at a time, it can hopefully grow.

  5. Hi Melissa,
    Thank you for writing about this topic. I needed to hear a lot of what you wrote about here today. As I try to make sense of all of this and wonder how these families will ever breathe correctly again it is good to hear from someone who has lived it and occasionally breathes. Before we moved to Singapore we were members of the Newtown ward, living in the town of Ridgefield, Connecticut. My 6 year old Jack is in first grade this year. I think it may be these 2 things that are causing me to have the hardest time coping with what happened in Sandy Hook. Because I look back to our time in Connecticut with perfect, beautiful memories and because I have a beautiful son the age of the children who passed I feel such a connection to this incident. We all have a connection though because we all love children…especially innocent, beautiful 6 year old ones. Their faces appear in my mind as I lay down each night and try to go to sleep. This is when I climb deepest into the hearts of the parents and families of Sandy Hook and wonder how they will ever sleep again either…

    • Becky, thank you for chiming in with such a tender mother’s voice. I’ll quickly say here that I can’t claim to have that much in common with the parents of the Sandy Hook attack, except that we have all lost our children suddenly. Here’s an example that helps to understand different types of loss: Randall and I have never attended one, but if you were to go to a meeting with the Compassionate Friends, a global support organization for bereaved parents, (there are chapters everywhere it seems, all under regional names; in Munich it was Die Verwaiste Eltern, or Orphaned Parents), the first thing that is done is parents are divided into groups. Deaths by accident, over there. Deaths by terminal illness, over here. Deaths my suicide, right here. Deaths from military incidents, from SIDs, stillbirths, etc., all in their own spaces. The logic is that the nuances of each loss are so specific that parents understand one another best and can therefore support each other best, when they speak the same language. When your helpless child is a victim of this terrifying diabolical thing as happened in CT, well. . .it stands in a category apart from all else. So. . .I do breathe today. We all do. We even laugh. And dance. And generally, we are functioning at 90%. And then there are days when I have to lock down a little bit and protect myself. I know I am vulnerable. And this took more work and support over many months and even years than I could have imagined on the outset was going to be necessary. As dear friends, bereaved parents, told us on the outset, “this beast has a long tail.” I asked, “Long? How long?” Then I spoke with another father whose youngest son had been killed in a motorcycle accident, and he said without much emotion, “Oh, I’d say four, five years. Then the world seems to have found its axis again. Once in a while you do fall of its edge all over again. But you climb back on. So, yeah, four, five years.” This should give us all pause when we begin coaching others far too early to “move on” and ‘Get over.” In fact, we observers have no right to coach the grieving at all. No right whatsoever. It is not the place of an observer to give advice about a terrain the observer does not know intimately. The advice itself, unfortunately, is so often given to make the whole ugliness easier for the onlooker. Our role as co-mourner is to sit and listen and be coached by the one who has lost. Even if I were the parent of a murdered child myself, I would never dare counsel or coach the Newtown parents. But I would listen. They are learning things that are most essential to the question of what it means to be human. I’d want to listen. And mourn. And I know you would, too. You have been a kind friend to those in distress. I know that.

  6. I just want to say that this is the first piece I’ve read that expresses what I feel. It feels wrong to be merry and sing songs and update my facebook status and post pictures of my beautiful, living, breathing children doing adorable Christmasy things, even though they are living and breathing and we do need to go on with life. I don’t know how I could possibly mourn with those that mourn in a meaningful way. But it feels good and right to share in their sadness, to stay and dwell with them in the dark. Maybe, like prayer, mourning with those that mourn doesn’t ever really change them but is only meant to change us.

    People have been quoting the end of “I heard the bells on Christmas Day” a lot–
    Then in despair I bowed my head:
    “There is no peace on earth,” I said.
    “For hate is strong and mocks the song
    Of peace on earth, goodwill to men.”

    Then they continue right on with the next verse about the bells ringing out all the more loudly and convincing the speaker that all is right in the world and everyone is merry again. But I’m still bowing my head in despair. I’m just not at the place where a few bells ringing quite brings back the light and joy. And for those families, I don’t know how it ever can be. Bells–and even knowledge of a Savior and life after death–can’t bring back their children.

    The Savior can comfort them; they can rebuild their lives. But for now, I feel like staying a while longer in the dark. I will hold my children tighter and love them fiercely, but I will also weep. I feel the weight of the other parents’ pain. I want to know the names and stories of the children and weep for their futures that will never be. I will weep for the boy who died and his twin sister who lived. I will weep for the parents, for a community with funeral after funeral after funeral. I don’t know how long it will take, but for now, I just want to keep mourning.

    • Stephanie, your words here are so much more than useful, although they are certainly that, too. They are also ennobling. Mourn with those that mourn. What a huge challenge. That Alma, the Book of Mormon prophet, used such specific language in his baptismal invitation is no small thing to me. He’s just fled Noah’s court where great evil was seething, and where Abinadi, the indomitable voice for godliness, was standing in a mock trial. He would die a horrific death. And much death and other losses would follow these people who were so eager to form God’s flock under Alma’s direction. His first question of these followers? If they want to be called God’s people, they must be willing (not perfect in execution, but willing in their hearts) to bear one another’s burdens and mourn with those that mourn. That’s not some extra virtue to acquire after attending meetings, memorizing scriptures, paying church alms, and keeping all the laws to their jot and tittle. It’s where the covenant begins. In fact, that kind of active compassion is not only where the covenant begins but where it ends. Everything in our religion radiates from and returns to that challenge to be self-emptied enough that our soul can absorb and bear the many and enormous burdens of those around us. That sincere willingness to be available to enter into the other’s darkness and stay there as long as it takes, as you’ve so beautifully written above, is how we most exactly and completely mirror Jesus Christ. All else is peripheral to the cultivation of that virtue, because it englobes the first and second greatest commandments.

      And please, I don’t want to gloss over this important sentence you’ve written. As a matter of fact, I’ll make it the topic of my next post:

      “I don’t know how I could possibly mourn with those that mourn in a meaningful way. But it feels good and right to share in their sadness, to stay and dwell with them in the dark.”

      That inclination falls in line with what many ancient cultures have done through the centuries. They retreat into the darkness with the bereaved. And they stay there for a long time.

      Beyond that reference, I can offer lists of things Not To Do/Say and a follow up list of Things To Do/Say. It’s pretty exhaustive, though neither absolute nor foolproof, of course. Mourning and comforting are spiritual passages; they require above all things silence and inspiration. But this part is a whole appendix in my book. I’ll get right on it.

  7. Sister Melissa,

    Thank you for your post. I have never experienced a tragic personal loss, only those of the usual kind. Understanding that, I have nothing to add. Except that the numbness that I feel may, in some small way, echo the feeling of others far removed from this tragedy.

    On my daily path, having raised my own three into adulthood, I encounter, daily, parents who choose everything – drugs especially, over their children. You see, I prosecute those parents who abuse or neglect their children. It is difficult work. I never doubt, for even a minute, that these parents love their children. But they love something else more. And, as a result of that love, neglect or abuse their children.

    Taking that information and knowledge and trying to make sense of what the Newtown parents must experience, leaves me clueless. I think, perhaps, that I understand more of what the Newtown parents feel than what the parents in my work town (small town in Ohio, USA) feel.

    And for that, I am glad.

    Ann McDonough
    Pickerington II Ward, Columbus, Ohio South Stake

    • Ann, What you deal with professionally penetrates a zone of atrocity I can only scarcely start to imagine. Negligence and abuse, particularly of children, a global evil, is a form of quiet violence. Mind-boggling. Soul-scorching. And daily exposure to it must be (again, I am only venturing) totally suffocating. Visiting those depths emotionally as you must for your job, does give you the capacity to feel with others who suffer. In spite of what that costs (and it costs the abused children the most, of course), it does expand your compassion. thank you, Ann, for adding your voice to this discussion.

      More to come. . .

  8. I appreciated this post so much Melissa, and also seeing our dear friends’ comments and your responses….before you posted, there were the two things I had on my mind….Christmas presents with their beloved child’s name written on it….and Christmas cards with their happy faces already sent out….totally heartbreaking. Thank you for putting a voice to all that we are feeling….

    • Sarah, thank you. This is all so delicate, you know, that I do fear stepping over a line of propriety, peering into another’s terror as I am doing in words. I can only hope it doesn’t come across only as that. The process of slowly, steadily walking though the survivors’ households in words is painful but I hope in some way a way toward feeling with the victims. There’s more to do beyond writing, I know that, and I’ll post on that.

  9. Melissa,

    Thank you for your insight and honesty. Your article is very humbling and thought provoking. I love reading your thoughts. You also add light to my own. The photos add a wonderful visual. My heart feels something every time I read something you have written. You eloquently articulated what many of us are feeling and wondering from this tragic event. Thank you!

    • Alisa, Every time you expose yourself and your very most sacred and excruciating feelings + experiences, you simultaneously open yourself up for misunderstandings, injury (inflicted and received), and trivializing the most valuable things in your life. So. . .thanks. . .for coming here and giving me courage to keep being open enough that it helps us all understand grief somewhat better. Much love to you.

  10. Melissa,

    Your essay is thought-provoking, enough so that I wish to add my thoughts to the dialogue. I have some reservations about what you say, and want to respond, not in a spirit of contention, but in being a fellow traveler trying to figure out life.

    I’m uncomfortable with the suggestion that if I do not go into deep mourning I am somehow more superficial, less caring, less possessing of common sense than those who do weep at night. Certainly the events in Connecticut are worthy of deep grief. But I cannot lose myself in my grief for all the evil that exists in the world. Every moment of every day, something horrific is happening to someone’s child somewhere in the world. Some of these events are every bit as vile as what we have seen this past week. Should I not give all these grievers the same considerations, even if their grief is not common knowledge? And so I feel the dilemma: how can I mourn for those that mourn and yet not sink into into oblivion?

    I certainly do not mean to devalue the real grief that even those of us not directly touched by any tragedy can and do feel. But I also do not think that the only or even ideal way to grieve is to feel I can’t also rejoice in the good that exists as well. I can live my everyday life, and live in light, while still honoring others’ grief.

    You state that you are defined by your loss. We all are. We are also a sum of our parts; we are defined by all of our life experiences, bad and good. You are mother who has lost a child. I am a woman who will never bear a child; and no, I don’t equate this to the loss of the child, but it is nonetheless a loss, and one that helps define me. But I also define myself by what I have done; I had the courage to pursue another dream.

    Please, please, please do not think that I am being all cheery and pop-psych-ey (it’s a word now, I just made it up); that I am in any way judging or condemning the way that others respond to and express grief; or denying the reality of pain, loss, tragedy. Like anyone else, I have private griefs. I also face the little and not-so-little tragedies of life every day, whether in telling a woman she is miscarrying, telling someone they have cancer, or just telling an eight-year-old that she really shouldn’t go to that slumber party when she has a fever. I have told families that their loved ones, even children, were dead, and I have wept with them. I have worked over people that I knew were dead, but we continued resuscitation efforts so a family member could come and say goodbye before death was “officially” final. If I dwell in darkness for all the people I ache for, I will never live in light. And if I do not come into light, I cannot honor those for whom I grieve.

    I feel I haven’t expressed myself well, but I cannot find better words. I don’t even think that I am disagreeing with your overall sentiment. But I speak as a person who is far too good at living in the dark. And I believe that I can honor others’ pain in my own way while I allow everyone else the same.

    Sandy

    • Sandy, your comment is exactly what I hoped would show up, it stimulates so much valuable discussion. To respond to all that you’ve so carefully added to this thread in just one comment here will be impossible. There are at least 4 follow-up posts worth of response to what you’ve offered. I’d like to respond with greater precision to these points (and invite everyone to respond, too):

      1) How do we mourn with those that mourn and not sink into oblivion? (This begs the questions: Do we mourn with everyone, with every loss? Always the same way? Is weeping overrated, exploited, necessary?)

      2) What does it mean to be “defined” by a loss? Robbie Parker, in his press interview, stated that he hoped the massacre that took his daughter Emilie Alice’s life “not turn into something that defines us, but something that inspires us to be better, to be more compassionate and more humble people.” I think for our discussion we need to agree on a definition of “defined by.”

      3) How do medical professionals (like you) and others whose daily jobs are about life and death remain healthy and (this interests me) not become inured to grief in all its singular forms?

      4) “If I dwell in darkness for all the people I ache for, I will never live in light. And if I do not come into light, I cannot honor those for whom I grieve.” AMEN, Sandy. We are definitely speaking the same language. What I have found in grieving myself and grieving with others, is that it’s exactly in that darkness that we kindle a rare kind of light, warmth and unity, we bereaved and co-mourners. It is where Christ meets us. I have never known light as sharp and guiding as the light given in my darkest, most suffocating months/years. Those who stayed there at my side for the long haul, took part in that beauty. That’s why sharing grief (darkness) can be such a gift of light for all who dare to enter in.

      Sandy, I’ll try to address these 4 points in coming posts. Sorry it takes so many words. We’d all do better face-to-face. . .

      • It would certainly be quicker (and enjoyable) to discuss face to face. But on the flip side, putting my thoughts into writing forces me to at least try to focus in on what I really mean to say. When I have thoughtful discussions in person, there tend to be a lot of silences and half formed sentences trailing off while I try to gather my thoughts. Then again, talking back and forth helps clarify thoughts. But I could go back and forth on that all day.

        The question you post above that catches my attention the most is the one of definition. As I thought about this topic, I came back to the same point you made: How do we define definition? Is it how others see us, how we see ourselves, how we fit into some vague sense of what is supposed to be, and if so, who decides what is right, or most desirable, or the ideal?

        As for the issue of medical providers dealing with grief: also very interesting. The analogy that comes to mind is that of building up calluses to play a cello (or viola); the more fragile tissues underneath must be protected, but the fingers have to remain sensitive to be able to play. Medical settings also sometimes allow us to see multiple points of view. For instance, a friend once spoke to me of someone she knew who had a baby who needed a heart transplant. She spoke of how they had all of their family and friends praying for a heart to be available for this child. All of this is understandable, and shows caring and love. But until I brought it up, my friend had not realized that all of those prayers were essentially prayers for someone else’s child to die so that this child could live.

        And finally, on the topic of mourning with those that mourn, comforting those that stand in need of comfort. I have actually been thinking about this topic in the last several months. What I keep coming back to is that all of the traits, conditions, qualifications, whatever you call them, are centered on how we deal with each other; how we function as a community of believers and are willing to be a part of the community. Family in a much larger sense than how we normally define it.

        Anyway, enough words from me for tonight. But I look forward to your continuing thoughts.

        S

  11. Melissa,

    Wow. I am grateful to have your blog suggested to me by a common friend. I have only read this current post and the comments that have been made. I feel overwhelmed, in a good way, with thoughts, emotions and questions. Thank you for taking time, precious time, to create such beautiful expressions and truths. I am slowly consuming the many insights. This topic, or topics as it may be, is critical to our becoming; to our eternal existence. I am not ready to articulate my thoughts at this point. I am ready to ponder, question, and apply what I am learning here. What a wonderful blessing to have such rich discussion about how best to love as the Savior loves!!! Thank you.

    • I’m relieved that you’re overwhelmed “in a good way.” (Big sigh.) Exactly: exercising active compassion — feeling what others in pain must feel — is critical to our becoming (I like how you put that), and we have a constant model in Christ, who was “moved in compassion” (Matthew 14:14) over and over again. Every time He was, a miracle occurred.
      Thanks for your words!

  12. Beautiful Article Melissa

    Just wanted to know 1 thing about this quote below:
    When a person is born, we rejoice, and when they’re married, we jubilate,
    but when they die, we try to pretend that nothing happened.
    –Margaret Mead
    Do you know the reference to this quote?

    • Ella, right, right…A lot has been ascribed to Mead that cannot be traced, but to supposed public statements noted by random listeners. This quote I “inherited” from a larger, academic work on grief, where the source was buried by the author weaving it into a larger context. I’ve since found the same quote all over the place, but never with a specific source. I’ll keep looking, Sorry I can;t pin it down right now. Have you perhaps found any leads?

      • Ohh okay Thanks for that. No sorry I don’t have any lead. Research a lot but couldn’t find anything.

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