In the face of tragedy
Many of us woke up this morning to the news that 49 lives were taken in an attack on two mosques yesterday night in New Zealand. Once again, we are faced with the tangible results of what hate mixed with violence does to real human lives in the world. Some people from my local Methodist Church gathered outside of the Islamic Society of Denton to offer our solidarity, support, and love to those feeling this tragedy on a level far greater than we who are not part of the Muslim community can fully understand. So it made me start to wonder, as my mind tends to do: What is the appropriate response when tragedy suddenly strikes?
We had many people offer thanks to us for being there to support them during this time of mourning in their community. I shook hands and offered words of peace, and found myself on the “other side” of grief, the same place many others had found themselves when talking to me lately. You see, only a year and five months ago, my husband passed away, so I am very well versed in the compassionate head nod or the well meaning people who search for the “right words” and often come up short. For many of us, the pain of grief, mourning, and tragedy is a burden too heavy to bear, so we often end up saying or doing things that are not helpful.
I wondered, as I stood feeling quite helpless in the face of tragedy today, am I doing any good?
When I was around sixteen years old, I was on an end of the year choir trip when I got a call from my high school boyfriend at around midnight.
“Hello?” I answered. Silence blared on the other end as my boyfriend finally spoke in a hushed tone.
“Hi.” He whispered.
“It’s Bethany. Her father. He…died.”
“What? What do you mean?” I couldn’t comprehend this.
“There was an accident.”
I was suddenly in shock. This couldn’t happen to someone so close to me, someone I knew. This only happens to other people. Suddenly, my proximity to tragedy became much closer than I knew how to comprehend as a sixteen year old. I had spent a great deal of time at Bethany’s house. I considered her not only as one of my closest friends, but I wanted to be like her. I didn’t have the words then, but now I see that even as a teenager, I quickly recognized another soul sister.
I vividly remember the first day we met. She was sitting in front of me in 7th grade math class, her pencils in a neat row. Taking her lead, I also put my pencils in a row, and silently made note in my head that we should from that time on be great friends. We had sleepovers at her house; complete with popcorn, M&M’s, a large variety of soft drinks, movies, and makeovers. We talked about boys, school, and clothes endlessly and had a string of never ending inside jokes. Her house was large and beautifully furnished. Her parents made all of Bethany’s friends feel so welcome, letting us swim in their large pool and fixing us snacks when we all came over for an extra study session. Her mom always had the pantry loaded with goodies and made sure we were taken care of. Her Dad was a very kind man who was the head of his own company and was a shining example of success to his children. In short, they were the American dream, as I saw it. Her family, her home, her life, it was perfect. So how could this happen? How could her father, the head of this family that I always admired, be suddenly gone?
My mind weighed heavily on me until I finally got home from the school trip to see my friend. I didn’t know what I would say or what I would do. How could I right this wrong? This was an unthinkable tragedy. We were only teenagers.
When I saw her I hugged her hard, tears pricking my eyes. We sat out on the curb in front of her house to get away from it all.
And that is what we did. We sat.
I rubbed her back and held her hand. We sat in silence and I wondered what I could say that could make it better. I probably mumbled an “I am so sorry” once or twice, but in the absence of words, I didn’t say any. I just sat with her in her pain on the curb of her house. With the birds cheerily tweeting away and the cars passing by, the world continued around us as time for us stood still. Years later, she told me how powerful that was to her. Unbeknownst to me, I had given her solace in her time of grief.
I never knew that twenty years later, I would be experiencing an unthinkable loss myself and also finding comfort in the silence of friends. My husband would be given the label of “stage 4 colon cancer” patient and would only live 11 months after the initial diagnoses. I too, had friends that just sat with me in my grief. My pastor Rev. Don Lee, my friend and college minister Rev. Marc Corazao, and my music minister John and his wife Jean made regular appearances to J.R.’s hospital bed, praying with us and feeding us (one day on Thanksgiving!)
My friend and pastor Jonathan Perry’s first words after hearing the news was, “my heart is broken.” He brought J.R. a root beer, one of J.R.’s favorite drinks, every day he came to see us. At that time J.R. could only drink liquids and took great joy in at least getting his favorite beverages. Jonathan cried with us when we found out J.R. only had weeks to live. His tears may have been the first time that I truly realized that J.R.’s death was actually affecting other people, not just me. His vulnerability to reveal his own grief in solidarity with my own was like a salve to my wounds.
One of my best friends Becky Hensley and her husband Ben (who also happen to both be pastors) came regularly to sit with me, wash my clothes, and bring us goodies to cheer us up. When the doctor told us in the surgery waiting room that J.R. only had weeks to live, she was by my side. She held me and guided me to the elevator back up to hospital room, since I could barely walk or think. Her steadying arm was the only reason I got back to our room. On the night that he died, she sat quietly with us and waited. She sat and rubbed my arm as they took his body away. She sat and fell asleep with me on the couch, letting Will and Grace blare on the TV until five in the morning.
My family sat with me so many times I can’t even count. My father laying down with me on my bed when I couldn’t get up myself, searching for words of comfort. My brother sat with quiet strength, being a pillar of calm in the hospital room. My mother sat with me on dirty bathroom floors and hospital benches, slept with me on hospital chairs, and ate with me in hospital cafeterias. Sometimes we were both so tired we could barely speak, so we just sat and ate, hoping that somehow the food would give us the strength to keep going. She comforted me when I was about to lose it and talked me down when I was about to give a nurse or doctor a piece of my mind. She sat with J.R. for hours on end, watching golf and basketball, treating him as her own son.
What do all these people have in common? They didn’t’ have magic words. They didn’t have the answers. They didn’t have a miracle in their back pocket. They just sat with me on the curb, and held my hand, patted my back and grieved with me.
What do you do in the face of tragedy? How do you comfort those that are mourning and be in solidarity with those who are feeling the most pain?
You show up. You sit. You sit in the grief and the pain and you let it be what it is. You see them. You see the pain. If you say anything, you can say these words from Thich Naht Hahn:
“Dear One. I see you are suffering, and I am here for you.”
See their suffering. Be there for them in the way you know how. No magic words. No miracle salve. There is work to do in the aftermath of a tragedy, no doubt, but there is also work to be done within it.
When Bethany found out that my husband had died, she knew there were no magic words but let her heart be known. “I am blanketing you in prayer… My heart is breaking for your loss.” Twenty years later and the answer was no different.
Are you doing any good? I can answer with a resounding yes. We live in a broken world where evil exists. We will continue to fight for the oppressed, to stand up to hate, and to fight to change our laws so that violence does not win, but when an unthinkable tragedy happens don’t forget how important it is to recognize the pain first. To mourn.
What is the answer? What should our first reaction be when tragedy happens, when precious lives our lost?
Sit on the curb and hold them.
Photo by Mat Reding