The past few months, I’ve been struck dumb, collapsed by the weight of what Francis Weller calls the “sorrows of the world.” The best I could do most of the time was share stories other people were writing. I managed a brief comment on Good Grief, my radio show, after 49 people were killed at the Pulse club in Orlando and then silence captured me. What could I say to the unfolding of too many events to absorb, all of them pointing to the tremendous capacity of human beings to go cold and violent?
After the Pulse massacre, I flashed back to the years after I came out as a lesbian. I experienced many scary moments out in the world; verbal attacks on the street, threats to me or the women I was dating, frightening times when national politics centered on an anti-gay hate agenda. But clubs were the place we DIDN’T have to be afraid where, for a few hours, the biggest problem was whether anyone would ask us to dance. And suddenly, that would never be true again. All those young people looking to find a place to discover themselves and have fun and meet people who accept them would forever wonder if it’s safe to go.
THE DEATHS MOUNT
When just a few weeks later, one day after another, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were shot dead by police officers further opening the gaping wound of too many of these killings to count, I was horrified, struck down, struck silent. They could have been my child, my wife, my friend. (Because I don’t live in a white-only world.) I understood why social media posts implored white people not to be silent, and yet all I could have said at that point was “NOOOOOOOOOOOOO.” Being measured in my speech in general, there was just nothing useful I could add. On my Facebook page, I found myself reposting one impassioned article after another, leaning on an eloquent community outraged by the losses. I was grateful that when I could not speak, others could.
Then in Dallas and Baton Rouge, police officers were gunned down simply because they were police officers. I began to feel hopeless (not a usual thing for me). I started to wonder if things would just keep getting worse until the human community collapsed under its’ own weight.
Then Nice, a place my brother and his family have spent many summers visiting. A place for vacations and fun times, a place of beauty and good food and sun and surf. And now a place of such horrific violence that I have trouble, regardless of quite a good imagination, even picturing it. Families watching a parade, children on shoulders, babies in strollers. What does it take to drive the truck into that crowd, to somehow believe these are your enemies? I am glad I can’t imagine that.
What I knew all along but what has become more and more present for me is that the weight of our collective grief threatens to overcome our capacity as human beings. And perhaps for some, that has already happened. What part does denied grief play in our current political polarization? How many people are looking for someone to kill the bad guy, whoever they think that is, so that there will be no more losses? How does our collective sense of loss factor in to our level of fear and anger, or love and compassion?
I was 8 or so when a friend of my father’s, an artist from Germany, came to visit. At the dinner table, they spoke about the Holocaust, which I had never heard about. I had lots of questions when he left, which my parents answered honestly. I remember the horror I felt suddenly knowing there were human beings who had somehow justified killing millions of other human beings. I didn’t know how to put that together with my parents’ consistent message that people are basically good. I was to have more and more questions over the years, as John Kennedy, Malcolm X (who was gunned down a block from where I lived at the time), Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy were all assassinated. I remember a point where the weight of all that began to turn me cold, make me wonder if maybe we just needed to destroy the world and start over. But I’m glad that the early message, “people are basically good,” won out.
For me, facing up to loss and grief has consistently led to greater compassion for more people, even people whose actions I abhor. If we let ourselves feel another’s pain, can we easily mow them down? If we truly consider another person’s circumstance, can we hate them enough to kill or maim them? We can object, with passion, but we are unlikely to justify murder, I think.
So I choose love, which means I choose a broken heart. I choose to feel every cold hard loss and never go cold to it myself. I choose to cry for no reason and have days where I just can’t get anything done. I choose to find other people to support me when I just can’t cheer myself up. I choose to look for the helpers who come out in tragedy. I choose, in short, to grieve in my own way, following my own timeline, so that I come out the other side with something to say, even if I am mute at first. I choose to transform my anger and sadness and helplessness and disbelief into love so that I have something to offer in the world besides more of the same. And I choose to believe that underneath all the things we do in response to threat and uncertainty, we are, in fact, good people.
Cheryl Jones has been working with people facing loss in their lives for thirty years. She is the host ofGood Grief, a weekly radio show on the VoiceAmerica Health and Wellness Channel, about the transformative potential of our losses. You can learn more about her at her website,http://www.weatheringgrief.com.