I recently read of a village (sorry, I can’t remember where), where, when somebody experiences a death in the family, while the family is in their home grieving that night, the entire village goes outside and changes something on their own homes. Something noticeable and sometimes quite drastic. When the grieving family emerges the next morning, they look around and see that nothing looks the same anymore, to them, or to anyone else in the village.
Three years ago today, Friday morning, 20 families sent their sweet, beautiful first-graders to school as usual. Six adult educators went to work as usual. Their school and place of work is five miles from my house. Three years ago was the day that their families’ lives were ripped away from them. Nothing will ever be the same for them. Monday is December 14th, the date that this happened in 2012, but it was this Friday.
This Friday. December. December 14th. 2012. The sound of fire engine sirens. Of helicopters. The word, firehouse. The words guns, shooting, shoot. How many times have we heard those sounds, uttered those words in casual parlance – “I’m shooting for a 7:30 mile” – now, we may hear it differently. We may cringe at our careless words, and start to practice a new, less violent and mindless vocabulary.
Last week I had the privilege of attending the Love Wins Mental Health Conference organized by The Ana Grace Project. I wrote about it in this previous blog entry. But I didn’t write about the second breakout I attended: Treating Traumatic Bereavement, by Dr. Laurie Ann Pearlman. I chose to write a separate entry on this session and subject, because it is the one that challenges me and resonates with me the deepest. It deserves its own essay.
According to Dr. Pearlman, traumatic bereavement is “the persistent experience of trauma and grief following the sudden death of a significant other due to unnatural causes.” Typically, “the survivor has not yet accommodated the death; the trauma and grief interfere with the survivor’s ability to live life fully; these effects are persistent and pervasive; most therapists and counselors aren’t prepared to help this survivor population.”
I did not know any of the 26 families whose loved ones were murdered, but I have become friends with a few of them. Through running, my Poga classes, and/or shared faith, I have had the privilege of getting to know them, help them with the foundations they set up after the shooting, help them in any way I can.
In the week after the shooting, when I felt as helpless as I think millions of us did, like I wanted to help but had no idea how, I became aware of a gut feeling (God speaking to me?) that once the first responders and public circus moved on to the next show, I was going to be part of the healing journey. It sounds so melodramatic, but it was a clear feeling that came over me, along with the urge to be patient, to stay strong and focused on building my experience in mindfulness.
In some ways, it is not easy being friends with someone whose child was so abruptly and violently taken. As Dr. Pearlman pointed out (and she’s an expert on the subject), most therapists struggle with helping people with this sort of loss. So imagine how many missteps we can make as friends. There is no handbook that tells you how to act, what to say, what not to say, if you want to be an empathic, supportive friend and helper. Do we talk about our kids? Post photos of them on Facebook? Do we ask how they’re doing or is that annoying? Do we let them stay in bed all day or go over and drag them out? Do we replace their wine with seltzer or join them in a binge? Do we share our own, far less awful and more frivolous problems with them?
When someone is experiencing this type of bereavement, it is much more complicated than if they lose someone due to illness or other more natural, less abrupt cause. There is something unique about losing a loved one to a violent event, especially when it is caused by another human being. Often, the griever will also suffer from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). As Dr. Pearlman pointed out, they may be plagued by “intrusive images, sounds, smells, flashbacks;” they may try to avoid memories and reminders; they have “changes in beliefs and mood;” they may experience physiological arousal (insomnia, irritability, startle response” or dissociation (zoning out). These are different from typical grief symptoms, which they may also be experiencing, such as “yearning, sorrow, anger, numbness, suicidal thoughts.”
One of the hardest parts of this, is the fact that the world is no longer the place they assumed it to be. They may be experiencing difficulty accepting the loss; they may feel guilty; they may obsess over how much their loved one suffered; they may be consumed with wondering about or assigning blame – revenge; depending on where they were on the faith spectrum, they may be questioning it. They may be “grappling with meaning” – why did this happen??? – and if they get stuck on this search, it will be hard for them to move forward.
As I listened to Dr. Pearlman, I felt relieved and validated. What she was saying was true. I felt new clarity, and I wished that everyone could attend a talk like this or read her books. I felt a deeper understanding into my friends, who are experiencing and expressing their grief in different ways – they have had different life experiences, have different personalities, and typically, your gender also influences the way you cope. I better understood my missteps, why something may have been the inappropriate response on my behalf. I also understood even more deeply, how gracious and loving my friends are, as in their grief, they are still able to grant me grace, forgiveness and trust.
There are lots of great essays out there about what to say or not to say to someone who is grieving a loved one, or the loss of a child. I hope that every time you see one linked on a Facebook post, you will read it. It is so very hard to know how to express our best intentions in an authentic, loving way, which is I think what most of us want to do. I think that the best thing all of us can do to support our friends, in person and in social media, is to be mindful – mindful in our postings, so if we are posting festive photos, etc., perhaps we can, before pressing “Post,” pray for those who no longer take joy for granted. Mindful in our vocabulary – perhaps we can replace certain words with less violent ones (yesterday my daughter was telling me that at sports practice at her new school, they refer to a certain brutal workout as “shuttleruns” not “suicides”). Mindful in our interactions – what I have learned is that a griever cannot be fixed, and it isn’t my job to fix them. When they become enraged by something they saw online, or become fixated on a series of torturous thoughts and images, the best way for me to support them is to put myself in their place, imagine having those thoughts and memories, and crying with them. It is much more helpful to say “that f-ing SUCKS” than it is to say “well, just turn it off.”
Actually, the best thing to do is to ask your friend, how can I best support you? For most of us, this is unchartered territory and it’s okay, and healthy, to say “I don’t know how to best help you. Can you help me help you?” This does, however, require a certain level of trust to already be there. It is not appropriate to go up to a grieving mother when she is shopping and for one moment, her dead child is in the background and the price of kale in the foreground, and then you interrupt her to ask her if she’s the mom (because you saw her on TV), and you’re so sorry. Now the mom has to figure out how to handle this, plus comfort you in your distress.
Please, let us remember. We spend most of our lives trying to escape pain and discomfort, and run toward pleasure. But perhaps, especially during this time of year that is celebrated as joyous, while for so many in our midst, only magnifies a big, wide, painful void – perhaps we can really practice love and compassion by taking a few moments to remember. Remember the Sandy Hook children, adults, and their families, by going to this website to see the amazing work their families are doing to honor their memories. Sit, focus on our breath, and then imagine the pain these families are experiencing. Put a filter on your view of the world, your loved ones, your daily habits and routine, all that stuff you take for granted – put a mindfulness filter on even if just for a few portions of your day, recognizing that for these families, all of those little, insignificant moments in their day that they once took for granted, they now cling to. The stuff they once didn’t think twice about – getting out of bed, picking up the phone, going through the mail – now takes a Herculean effort.
Let’s be like that village and change something, to honor the fact that for these dear, fellow human beings, nothing will ever be the same. Let us be the change. Thank you.
Motivational coach, athlete, mom, entrepreneur. I love helping people mindfully reboot their health & joy.