When I grieve I tend to lose my keys. I forget people’s birthdays and kids’ lunch boxes. I tend to wander around aimlessly like our dearly departed dog, Copper, whom my brother consistently called, “Vacant.” I lose thoughts mid-sentence, without even knowing I trailed off (I am baffling to be around, a thing I know because I regularly look up to see my kids looking at each other with a side glance at me, saying-without-saying, “Are you watching this? Mom is losing it.”). Splendid.
Therapists have told me that my psyche is working hard to process grief that defies processing. That this effort requires a lot of work, and so there isn’t brain energy left to hold the grocery list, or to remember that the stop sign is not going to turn green, and that it’s my turn to go. This incompetence is challenging for me, a productivity addict.
Still, there is a beauty in it. I have come to wonder if perhaps the fog through which I move when I am overwhelmed with sadness is an unconscious attempt to protect the self. That my deep essence knows I can’t do the juggling, so my hands don’t reach for the balls. My executive function knows it is broken, and so it signals to those around me, “Don’t give her anything to do. It won’t go well.”
It makes sense to try to protect ourselves, to pull back when we hurt. When I was young and my brother was leaving for college, I tried to do trial runs of surviving his absence all year. I would pull back, aloof, acting like I didn’t care that he would soon leave me behind. I thought it would make it easier. It didn’t work.
Sometimes the universe feels dark. We feel surrounded by tragedy, or hesitant after so many revelations of bad news. Whether it is interpersonal pain or the wail of living in a world of such atrocious injustice, there are reasons to grieve. We walk wounded, nearly ducking from an innocent breeze, aware that trauma can lurk in any shadow. The hiding away doesn’t work though. Sometimes we suffer. Sometimes life is excruciating. Sometimes we can’t run fast enough to outrun the pain.
In Memphis, TN, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital stands as a defiant beacon of hope. St. Jude is an amazing place that regularly delivers miracles; it is also a warehouse of personal tragedy. Outside the complex of buildings that houses so much pain—kids hurting and parents aching that their beloved child’s life is on the line—exists a marker of the route of one of the most painful corporate experiences in American History. The road that runs alongside St. Jude is littered with signs that say, “Trail of Tears: Original Path.” Deeply personal pain surrounded by expansive, generational, shared pain.
The first time I drove past St. Jude, I glimpsed the sign but didn’t catch the entire thing. I couldn’t believe it. A few hundred yards down the road, there was another marker. Long before St. Jude was built, long before the street was paved, thousands of Natives, forced from their land by the US Government, walked that road. Held children as they died on that road. And now, along that street, personal tragedy and historical trauma bear witness to each other. How do we witness such pain? How do we face evidence of corporate and historical trauma in the face of our own, personal disappointments or tragedies?
It is easy to try to protect ourselves. To decide to shut down. If you are a parent walking into St. Jude with your kid, you probably don’t have any room to encounter or lament the Trail of Tears. We want to hide, to burrow away. We can’t face so much sadness. Our bodies and souls and psyches can’t take it. This is true.
However, I have learned it is also true that hiding away in my own personal grief does not make it easier. Instead, it is a beautiful thing to bring my hurting self to see all the other hurting selves and to be together there. To be a hurting human with other hurting humans. Especially when it hurts or causes discomfort, I now believe we must lean in to the pain in others that sees the pain in us. It might feel safe to hide within our own boundaries, but it is a sure way to dehumanize the soul as it braves the wilderness alone, forging a self outside of community. When it all feels like it is too much, it seems safe to discipline ourselves to be aloof. However, to be aloof is to deny your own humanity, because the human in you must resonate with the human in others. Especially in pain.
We have far too little expectations for our capacity to empathize and heal. Perhaps instead of shutting down in our pain, we now choose to bring it with us into our communities. Could we allow ourselves to be together in it? Could we expand our capacity to grieve the personal and the collective? Pretending to ignore corporate grief does not make it go away, nor does it alleviate our own encounters with suffering. It comes for us whether we are ready or not.
Perhaps we can learn to take a page out of the St. Jude playbook. They find a way when there is no way. They celebrate kids and have parties in sick wards, and laugh and play while kids endure unthinkable pain. They refuse to shut down in the face of suffering. They look it square on, with tears, and then continue to fight for every kid as long as they are able. The fight often brings more pain, but fight they do. They know increasing the capacity to fight for every kid does not diminish the ability to engage one kid with compassion. Could the same be true in us? Instead of withdrawing in our pain, could we find more healing through engaging in the pain of others? Could our burdens be more bearable if we lean in to stand with all those who bear impossible hardships each day?
Ignoring corporate angst, avoiding the pain of systemic injustice, does not protect me from my own personal loss. Is it possible that our own encounter with unspeakable personal pain teaches us how to grieve, lament, hope and then resist the systems of injustice that continue to wreak havoc on all of us? Rather than working to erect walls that promise to keep us safe, I suggest we increase our capacity to witness and engage with the pain of others. It might actually help us survive our lament, teaching us to hope again, with companions along the way.