Dealing with grief that arises from other people’s tragedy
Just before Christmas of 2001, my mother called with unbearable, unthinkable news: a close family friend had lost two of her three young children in a house fire. The youngest was a baby, seven months older than my one-year-old. Her daughter was five years old.
It was the saturation point of a grief-flooded year. My father had died in late August, from a wasting illness that made other terminal diseases look merciful. A few weeks later, the attacks of September 11 happened. A month after that, my toddler and I watched helplessly as our family dog drowned (I had a crawling baby in my arms and dared not go in the lake to save her). Meantime, a couple of enormous marital and family crises were unfolding in our home. Somewhere in there, both my grandmothers died.
I wouldn’t have thought I had room to absorb one more tragedy, but I was haunted by my friend’s loss. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, in horrifying, specific detail. I was similarly haunted by the deaths of September 11. Out of nowhere, an image would come to me–a fresh aspect of fear and suffering–and I would be fixated on it, helpless to turn away. I couldn’t pick up my own baby without following my friend’s son through his last moments.
Throughout all this, I am ashamed to say, I was unable to reach out directly to my friend. I was in a paradoxical state of paralysis, where I couldn’t face the enormity of what had happened, and neither could I look away. I had come up to the edge of grief’s chasm, and was hypnotized by the dark swirl below.
I knew I had to snap out of it, but I didn’t know how, until one night, I woke up thinking about my friend’s little girl. “Hannah,” I whispered with a pang. If I were this affected by the loss of a child I’d never met, belonging to a friend I hadn’t seen or heard from in years, what must her own mother be going through? How could she ever sleep, or even make it through the next breath?
And then a thought occurred to me. Maybe these sudden pangs of sorrow were invitations to carry a bit of her burden for a moment. Maybe, by taking in that pain, I was somehow converting it at a collective, unconscious level, so that my friend could catch her own breath for a second. Maybe human suffering is meant to have an overflow valve — what one of us cannot handle alone, spills over into the hearts of others. Who knows? But the thought gave me peace, and forever changed the way I meet grief that arises from other people’s tragedy.
I later learned that this is very much like a Buddhist principle called Tonglen, that teaches neither to resist or cling to suffering when it comes, but breathe in the pain, and breathe out peace. A kind of spiritual photosynthesis that helps everyone.
I got to practice it again and again this weekend, as each unthinkable thought arrived on my heart’s threshold, asking to be let in. Instead of pushing against it, I bring it in, with the thought that by doing so, it might help a grieving parent across the country bear the unbearable for another second. Then, instead of fixating on it, I let it go, and I go on my way. Life is for the living, my mother always says. And that helps me, too.
I’m not sure what I believe about afterlife, but there’s no scenario I can accept in which the victims of tragedy want the rest of us to remained trapped in the burning house, the hijacked plane, the terror-stricken classroom. I believe that they have moved on, and so should we in due course, with all honor, gravity and respect. In dealing with grief, we need to go with its flow, but not let it take us under.
Remembering someone’s life does not mean reliving their death. When the faces of those little children from Sandy Hook come to me, I try not to drag them back to the scene of horror, or into my own personal nightmares. Instead, I imagine them as a neighbor’s children, sent to my door because their loved ones need help bearing the unbearable. They have run out of hope, and peace, and breath, can I lend them some of mine?
Yes, gladly. And anytime they need more.