A Word About Grief

By trade, I am a therapist- the mental health kind- and I have spent many years studying, observing, and theorizing about human behavior. Since grief is an inevitable part of the human experience, it has been a theme of study and practice throughout my career. Every culture, every group, and every family has its own beliefs, rituals, and traditions surrounding loss, dying, and death, and they serve an important purpose in the survival of that group.

Grief and loss signal to a family or group that it is time to circle the wagons, to move closer together, to conserve and share resources, and to work for the benefit of the entire group. There is a kind of unity inside of grief that is not experienced during any other time. At least, that is what a healthy grieving process looks like. I think about the atmosphere of unity in grief that our country experienced during the days following September 11th with all of the amazing stories of humanity transcending one of its darkest hours with faith, resilience, and bold acts of generosity and kindness. People worked sacrificially to meet each other’s needs, because everyone knew instinctively that it was time to take care of each other. It was time to circle the wagons and people didn’t wait for instructions on what to do or worry about how others may perceive their actions, they simply acted.

September 11th was a trauma to all of us, and we are learning more and more that trauma is inter-generational. That means that even the kiddos that were born years later are subject to the repercussions of the original trauma. We know that in families, the effects of trauma often result in addictive behaviors, even several generations away from the original trauma. The addictive behaviors serve the purpose of avoiding the pain associated with trauma, and it blocks the natural and healthy process of grief and recovery.

When I look at our country today, I see unresolved trauma and a pattern of addiction. The trauma of 9/11 was so great that the stress still runs through our veins. At some point in our collective grieving process, fear was able to weave a destructive web around our hearts and minds. With each new tragedy, large or small, our collective nervous system was overwhelmed and unable to manage the heartache of a new loss. We retreated to whatever soothed us, to whatever temporarily numbed the pain. Then the next tragedy occurred and we again retreated to our self-soothing mechanisms, and this cycle has played out so many times that we don’t even need to retreat any more. At this point in the cycle of our collective addiction, there is no one left in the middle to retreat outward when tragedy strikes. Everyone is now permanently spread out, isolating in their sanctuaries of false security, and attempting to communicate with each other by shouting across the divides.

Friends, what happens when the wagons aren’t circled but are spread far and wide with no form of effective communication? The answer should make your blood run cold, because you know the cost is high and the loss of life is imminent.  If we want to survive, we can no longer allow our first response to tragedy to be debates over policy. Don’t get me wrong, the social activist in me loves a good policy debate, but I truly believe that our retreat behind policy is taking the human element out of the tragedy. It is our drug, numbing the pain and heartache so we don’t have to feel it anymore.

Like everyone else, I don’t have answers or fixes for the senseless tragedies that our country continues to experience week after week, but I do know that collectively we are trauma-weary and coping in an unhealthy way. I also know that without unity we will be devoured, either by our own unhealthy pattern or by an outside force that we are now too unhealthy to defend against. It could be that those first steps toward unity may lie in allowing ourselves to grieve together once again. If we grieve together as one nation, we will not be washed away by the sadness. We will transcend as we draw closer and are able to really hear each other again.

Friends, it is time to circle the wagons.

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