Living Columns & Blogs

Grieve a great loss at your own pace

During the past few years, our world has known tremendous tragedy. Just last month, a plane crashed at our own airport, taking the life of a generous doctor and his pilot.

That’s the local. It’s almost too painful to think beyond our own village. It demands much of us, as we read and listen to news of another mass shooting, a terrorist bombing, loss occurring in places where we go — school, mall, movie theater, a club to dance with our friends. Sometimes the news breaking our hearts is a natural disaster — earthquake, wildfire, heatwave, tornado. And, it does break our hearts, if we hear it compassionately, wholeheartedly.

These great tragedies hit us where we are. We may not know the people involved. But rarely do we hear the news and go about our day unaffected. One minute, those killed or injured were doing something normal. The next, they are news. What we do with this news affects us. Are we able to take the time to do more than hear the news, allowing ourselves to sit with the emotions the world is experiencing as we take in the impossibility of tragedy? Such a task is almost too painful. At the least, it feels unfathomably awful.

I remember vividly where I was on 9/11. I suspect most of us older than preschool at the time do. I can also remember the visceral awareness that I had no earthly idea what to do with my confusion, how to respond, and certainly I felt uncertain about discussing my true feelings. I was able to hypothesize, politicize and even offer critique. I found it hard, though, to be as vulnerable as I was feeling. I still feel that way. Each awful time.

It’s not that tragedies haven’t happened throughout time. We know the history. This world has known pain and suffering for millennia. But, this is the age we live in — one in which the tragedies of the world are daily offered on our screens. We cannot avoid hearing about these great tragedies. They make us feel vulnerable over and over again, keenly aware of death and loss.

I propose that allowing these terrible events to be more than news, to be about real people who work, eat and breathe just like us, may make the grief less scary. Maybe it will even enrich our lives and help us love more fully. Allowing ourselves to be touched by the tragic losses in our world gentles us. And as the campaign encouraging “Love is Love” after the Orlando shooting reminds us, we do live in a world of love where each of us is capable of holding another during the unavoidable grief of loss.

There are all sorts of articles online to help us mourn tragedy. While social media is one form of instant access to this sort of news, it may also enable us to hold the tragedy at arm’s length, keeping it from truly entering our own heart. A recent editorial in The Atlantic suggests that social media, while offering a public forum for mourning, can also be less personal. Claire Wilmot, upon the loss of her sister to cancer shares, “Some argue that the likes of Facebook and Twitter have opened up public space for displays of grief that had been restricted to private spheres of secular culture. But rather than reconstructing an outlet for public grief, social media often reproduces the worst cultural failings surrounding death, namely platitudes that help those on the periphery of a tragedy rationalize what has happened, but obscure the uncomfortable, messy reality of loss ... To be clear, I am not trying to tell anyone how to grieve. But rather than defending the rise of a new space for public morning as unambiguously good, perhaps the online community is in even greater need of a critical discussion — about what it means to make room for your own sadness while being sensitive to those closest to a loss.”

Most of the best advice is pretty simple, albeit a bit counter-cultural in our social media savvy age: Wait. Consider. Listen. Recognize the beauty in your life. Wonder at the good in this world. Limit social media use during these times to reduce anxiety. Experience empathy.

If you feel called to “do,” do it thoughtfully: offer yourself carefully as you donate, write a letter, advocate, reach out. Possibly our vulnerability will make us stronger, as individuals and as a whole.

Diana Malcom is an associate in ministry at State College Presbyterian Church where she works with youth, college students and young adults. She is a campus pastor with the Penn State group Westminster Presbyterian Fellowship and is a member of Learning to Live: What’s Your Story?

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