On news shows and press conferences about the Sandy Hook Elementary School, I repeatedly heard things such as
—-Our hearts go out to the families and survivors.
—-Pray for them.
—-Although we can’t understand it, it’s God’s will.
—-This is a tragedy of unimaginable proportions.
Although all were said by well-meaning and genuinely compassionate people, none of these suggestions or explanations were helpful for understanding what I felt.
Blame and Understanding
On the talk shows, pundits placed the blame on the NRA, the easy access to firearms by the mentally unstable, and a culture that idolizes violence. Maybe all are true, but that can’t explain the emotions I experienced when I heard the news.
I didn’t know any of the children or their families, nor have I ever been to Connecticut. Yet I felt grief more appropriate for a family member than a stranger. An easy explanation for my grief and that of the millions who didn’t know the children but feel a tremendous loss is that we are mourning the death of a life—and especially one that is young.
But last week only two minutes of news were given to the UNICEF report that more than 500 children have been killed in theSyrian civil war. And I don’t recall anybody I know even mentioning that tragedy or grieving for those children and their families.
Does that mean that I think the grief I hear on television from every newscaster, politician, and talk show host is disingenuous? Absolutely not. But understanding it requires looking at the hidden nature of grief.
What is Grief?
We all are familiar with what grief looks like: crying, emotional labiality, disengagement, anger, etc. But these and other behaviors everyone has experienced are expressions of grief—not grief itself. Those of us who are involved in dealing with people who are grieving try to understand what’s behind the outward expressions. The answers aren’t as straight forward as many believe. We grieve what is lost or what may be lost. Think of grief as concentric circles with you in the middle. The closer the loss is to you, the easier it is to understand.
For example, when you lose something that is an essential part of your identity, your grief is immediate and as personal as it can be. I cared for an avid walker who developed ALS. When he longer was able to walk through the Rose Garden in Golden Gate Park, the grief he experienced was as genuine and profound as losing a life-long loving partner.
The next outward circle is the loss one experiences when someone significant in your life dies or leaves. That person could have been a part of your identity or generated emotions within you that made life meaningful. This type of grief is also easy to understand. We all have experienced it and seen it in others.
But things become muddled when we grieve for someone we don’t know with the emotion usually reserved for a loved one. I watched hysterical people at impromptu memorials grieving Michael Jackson’s death as if he was their son, father, or lover. I doubt few ever met him, and probably none had a personal relationship with him. So why was the grief so profound and genuine?
Confronting Our Fears
I think grieving over the deaths of people we don’t know often has to do with confronting our worst fears or realizing how important the person was for establishing our identity. President Obama said it best when addressing the nation that he was speaking as a father, not the president of the United States. And as those of us who are parents know, at least once in our lives we’ve had the nightmare of losing our children.
With the loss of a child comes not only the loss of a life, but the dreams we had for our children and ourselves, and the loss of a significant role that defined us. When we mourn the death of someone we don’t know, our mourning may be embedded in understanding that potentially, we can experience what their families did. Although it wasn’t my child who died, next time it could be. The uncertainty of what may happen to us or our loved ones can be as devastating as the actual deaths in Connecticut.
I’m sure, there will be many analyses of what precipitated the tragedy and even more suggestions for how to prevent it in the future. And I’m sure lessons will be learned—and if history is repeated—not applied. But I’ll leave those weighty issues to others. For me, tragedies such as the deaths at the Sandy Hook Elementary School will never make any sense. But I can ask myself, what was it about this tragedy that caused such a strong emotional reaction in me and others? What is it that we fear so much that this tragedy can press an instant emotional reaction button, and why didn’t that happen when we heard about the Syrian children?
If there is any lesson to these senseless deaths, it is that it forces us to confront our worst fears. Tibetans have a saying, that you should bring the sharp points of life closer to you in order to get over your fears. Unfortunately, sharp points will probably repeatedly occur from events that will be just as tragic—or even more so—than what happened in the Sandy Hook Elementary School.