Embracing Action and Stillness in the Wake of Tragedy
As I write this, it has been 12 days since the tragic attack at San Diego’s, Chabad Poway Synagogue. By now, most of us know what transpired. A 19 year-old-male entered the synagogue during Saturday services, murdered a beautiful sole, injured two others, and traumatized the hundreds of congregants in attendance. The fact that his gun miraculously jammed likely saved many others. It was a direct assault on the Jewish people and an indirect assault on us all. To be gunned down in a sacred place of worship is horrifying.
The response internationally, and particularly in San Diego, was swift and loud. There was an abundance of action though virtually no stillness. Many vigils were held in the days that followed, with thousands of people from all denominations showing up in solidarity. Words of wisdom were shared by spiritual leaders, public safety organizations, and the Anti-Defamation League. People were encouraged to do something in the victims’ honor that they could no longer do, such as light the Sabbath candles. The injured Rabbi encouraged Jewish people to share our religious customs with those of other denominations to promote tolerance. I was especially moved by something my own Rabbi said at packed services that first Friday after the shootings. He shared that he looked up the victim’s Facebook page and read her last three posts. The most recent post was of her in attendance at a fundraiser for a camp for special needs kids, the second was a Go Fund me page for a non-synagogue affiliated woman in need, and the third was an article on “35 Amazing Facts about Israel.” In addition to speaking to the altruistic character of the victim, each post had been prolifically shared since Lori’s murder, resulting in significant fundraising in her honor and a greater appreciation of the small State of Israel. The week was filled with compassion, solidarity, inspiration, and a determination that this would not happen again.
Though I was moved and inspired by many of these events, there was a piece throughout the week that bothered me: what was NOT done. It felt as if there was so much haste to right the wrong, get into action, honor the victims, etc. that people, myself included, were not sufficiently tending to their grief. There was a virtual absence of stillness.
My belief that it is critical to be fully present to the physical and emotional experience of grief in the wake of tragic loss Is probably very unpopular. Who wants to feel that kind of pain? What does it change? How does it help? It helps because feelings are meant to be felt. And the deeper the pain, more we need to be present to it – to consciously resist displacing or pushing the feelings away. We have to experience the hurt, the dropping in our stomach, the ache in our hearts. We have to welcome our tears as a healing salve. We have to feel the fear and the anxiousness and the lack of control uncomfortably searing through our body. And when anger arises, we feel that too. And when we do this, lasting healing begins.
Coincidentally, I am in New Orleans right now, for the one-year anniversary of my mother’s passing. My dad, who is 88, and my mom were married for 60 years and no one knew if and how he would survive her passing. He stunned us all by not only surviving but thriving. And part of why he is doing so well, I am certain, is because he stayed present to his grief. He confided in me yesterday that he now only tears up every three days or so. But with his regular tears, he also resumed going to the gym, helping psychologically wounded veterans, taking the dog to the dog park, and other life affirming activities. In essence, he chose to resume life while still tending to his grief. And that makes for beautiful healing.
Allowing time and space to grieve not only promotes healing but also ensures that we are engaging in conscious, clear action as opposed to emotional reaction. In tragic situations, the immediate call to action, without accompanying grief work shortchanges grieving. And if the grief is not tended to in its purity, it will come out in other, less pure forms.
When you are faced with a loss, tragic or otherwise, I encourage you find a quiet place, several times per day to just sit with your sadness. Because when you welcome it, and don’t push it away, true healing begins to take shape. There is no short cut to grieving. We have to carve out time for stillness, alongside action.