"What Happens To A Society That Cannot Grieve Together?"

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images.
Yesterday morning I was standing barefoot in the kitchen when a news alert buzzed on my phone: another mass shooting. At that point, the reports were just starting to trickle in. We didn’t know how many injured or dead, or who was responsible, or why. But we did know what would come next. How many times have we woken up to the worst massacre of modern times?
It would start with hearts and prayers from public figures, rote reactions spread through a vast digital web; followed by emojis, bespoke hashtags, and Facebook posts declaring that “we stand with [insert latest site of terror].” Then the gunfight: an outcry from anti-gun activists and pro-gun advocates, both of whom would accuse the other of co-opting a tragedy for their own ends — a recrimination that is also the truth. Ultimately, the shooting in Vegas will, like the ones that came before it, reflect political polarization instead of communal heartache and horror.
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It is not revelatory to say that, at a moment in history when we are as digitally interconnected as we have ever been, we are equally as divided. There won’t be a national day of mourning because there is no one to lead it; and also because if we marked every one of these events meaningfully we might have to acknowledge, collectively, that something has gone terribly wrong. And then we might have to agree to fix it.
While there are countless ways in which digital camaraderie has been a gift, the plain truth is that we have lost the ritual of sitting together in our sorrow and replaced it with sad-faced emoticons and Facebook statuses. All you have to do is examine your own heart to know that is not enough. But what should a ritual for collective modern grief — for human-inflicted violence that is at once random and predictable — look like?
“We live in a culture where everything is so individualized that we don’t have a communal space for us to mourn the deaths of people, who we may or may not know, and to feel all of the feelings that are part of living in a world where you or your children could be gunned down at any time,” Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg told me early Monday, while we were on the phone talking about the dearth of rituals supporting grief on a cultural scale. “We make the choice to numb out, so that we can go back to work and to living our lives, and to feeling that we’re safe and it’s okay.”
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Except that we’re not safe, and it’s not okay. Pretending otherwise is both all we can do and the worst thing for us — particularly when the days and weeks thereafter will be stippled with bitter tweets and I-told-you-so’s that accomplish nothing except a widening of the chasm. The ancient Greeks, returning from war, used to sit through tragic plays meant to bring about a catharsis that would allow them to emotionally integrate back into everyday life. In the United States, we have no such mass ritual for soldiers — or for ordinary people — to process the aftermath of man-created catastrophe. Twitter is not the venue for an undertaking of such gravity; nor is there any single beacon capable of uniting us in common mourning. So where does that leave we, the people?
The structures that are in place tend to exist on an individual, subcultural, level. Rabbi Ruttenberg shared that, in Judaism, after a loss, people pledge to honor the memory of a person who has died, in myriad ways. “Embedded in our mourning rituals is the idea that we have to work to honor that memory. We need to do something.” But first, she said, we need to be sad: to sit with that feeling, and to go through it, so that we can get through it.
It’s a process at odds with our collective emotional pathos. After Virginia Tech and Newtown, after Paris and Orlando, depressed but personally unscathed, I searched for the line between empathy and over-identification. Does this grief belong to me? I wondered then, and now, sitting at my desk, a day after 59 people were shot dead at a country music festival. How sad am I allowed to be?
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“It’s almost taboo to feel horrible grief and sorrow,” psychotherapist Toni Coleman told me, shortly after I hung up with Ruttenberg. “Certainly the people directly affected by that horrible tragedy will go through the grieving process. But the larger culture will forget, or take sides, and move on.”
Still. “We’re overwhelmed. There’s too much sadness, too much grief,” she says. “What happens is our defenses kick in, and while they work, they can be very dysfunctional. One of those defenses is denial; another is depersonalization.” (How sad am I allowed to be?) “But how do you work through horrible violence,” Coleman asks before we hang up, a detectable tremor in her voice, “when we know it’s going to happen again?” She’s right. The most predictable element of this weekend's massacre is that we know another plot is hiding in the wings.
That question in mind, I called Reverend Abby Mohaupt, who spoke from the perspective of her own Presbyterian faith; I have known Abby since we were children growing up in a mid-size midwestern town, back when Columbine seemed like an isolated incident. We walked the same hallways the day the Twin Towers fell.
For whatever reason, she told me this week, the human condition requires suffering. “Thank goodness we don’t always have to use our own words. We can use the words of the Psalms, and that helps give us strength to look and see the pain.” Prayers — rituals — are a processing, a way to both acknowledge grief and also a rubric to work through it. It’s easy to wall off this shooting (any shooting) as something unrelated to ourselves. But how do we get to the place where, as Mohaupt put it, “our hearts will break with whoever’s heart is breaking”?
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As I sit here typing, my heart is still breaking. I am agnostic so I read a poem instead of saying a prayer and then keep making calls because that is the ritual of my grief: talking to strangers, and long lost friends, about something we have in common now. By mid-afternoon I’m on the line with New York University’s Professor David Elcott, an interfaith and community organization expert (among many other bona fides). Our exchange is like trying to untie a knot made of knots.
“Because of political polarization,” he says, “grieving becomes very complicated. Because if I admit to grieving, and to the larger picture of this suffering — in this case, caused by people shooting other people — that may force me to say: We need to do something about guns. It’s an environment where we can’t step aside and say we need to grieve together, irrespective of our political stance, in order to process the enormous pain caused by these losses.”
Put another way: If you’re pro-gun, there is no room to admit to grief. In 2017, the ritual response to a mass shooting is to defend your position on the Second Amendment. At the same time, if you’re anti-gun, you’ve been given a hand to play, and the next move is to make use of that opportunity. Fundamentally, that divides us into two camps, neither of which benefits from the catharsis of collective grief; we do not get to share our burden. “What happens to a society that cannot grieve together, to share in the feeling of owning the pain?" Elcott wondered toward the end of our conversation. All I can think is: this mess we're in.
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But I can't leave things there — not today. So I get back on the phone, once more, this time to speak with Sensei Koshin Paley Ellison, of the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care. In Zen, he explains, the core aim is to sit with your mind and your heart; to cultivate silence around non-reactivity; to just be. “When things are sad, they are sad,” he tells me.
I am leaning on a brick wall down the street from my apartment, the sun is dropping in the sky, and people are going about their evenings as if there had not been a mass shooting the night before, and for the first time all day, I'm crying. Later, at home, I pull a book off the shelf in my office that was given to me sometime after my father passed away two summers ago, called Grief Is The Thing With Feathers. In it, a man who has lost his wife is visited by a large black bird, which sounds sinister but is not: Crow is a sentimental animal and human grief is the shiny tinsel that drew him to the man, and his two young sons, in the first place. It’s a slim novella — tender, wickedly funny, and yes, full of sorrow, all at the same time.
In the end, Crow flies away, not because the grieving is over, but because it has become a known entity, a familiar companion. What I am trying to say is that it is easier to live with heartache when you are no longer a stranger to your own sadness; what I mean is, to get through it, you have to go through it.
When things are sad, they are sad, I wrote down in a notebook and then pinned above my desk. It's a reminder to sit with sorrow and be sad when we are sad. To let our hearts break and to do the work of honoring the dead. To challenge any political leaning held dearer than beating human hearts. To grieve so that maybe someday we'll get through this, together.
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