While I have not lost a child in tragic and violent circumstances, I have lost someone unexpectedly and suddenly. And more than sorrow and heartbreak, the grief of Newtown families is palpable to me. I live in Connecticut, and I feel their grief in the air. Like people across the country, I feel it in my heart.
Six years ago, I lost my mother in a car accident. She was a pedestrian struck by a car on a Wednesday in April. I was in my first year of graduate school. That day, I was in a theory seminar discussing post-modernism. I made chicken piccata for dinner. The phone rang, an accident. I remember everything and nothing of those initial weeks of loss. I remember all of the details of our drive to the hospital but once we arrived and heard the news, time stood still. I remember the funeral. The swarm of faces and the din of voices rang in my ears for days. We sat Shiva for a solid week and I barely rested. For a long time, I held that grief in my bones.
Grief is a powerful emotion. If you’ve never experienced gut-wrenching grief, it is hard to explain how eviscerating it can be. It’s like an assailant in hot pursuit of your happiness. One moment, you feel almost normal and the next, something happens and you’re in its clutches.
During that first year without my mom, I would avoid anything that I thought would make me sad. No more hospital dramas. No violent movies. No car accident imagery. No mother-daughter events. I censored anything that I thought would trigger grief or sadness. No amount of self-censorship could have prepared me for the moments when grief overtook me. It was unpredictable and no matter how much I tried to protect myself, something unexpected would happen and there was the grief, sweeping over me, crushing me.
Until I lost my own mother, I had always wondered how people survived the tragic loss of a loved one. I talked about my grief with a loving therapist, with my sister, and with my husband. I was very private about it. My therapist showed me that grief is debilitating but it can also be empowering. After months of weekly therapy, she helped me to see that I could succumb to the grief I was feeling or I could dig deep and survive it myself. While I can’t think of any specific instances now, I am sure there were times that I thought I could not survive it. But I learned about this reserve of personal strength. It’s there. I just had to tap into it.
It’s simply impossible to assume that everyone’s grief is the same. The worst thing someone said to me after I lost my mother was “Been there, done that.” I assume that this person had lost a parent, and at the time, I remembering thinking to myself, “No one can know exactly what I’m feeling.”
I do not, will not, and hope I never have to fully understand first hand the grief suffered by parents of Newtown children or the family members of Newtown teachers. When communities suffer a tragedy like this, when communities lose so many people, the best we can do as a larger society is give them space and support. When loss is so tragic and so public, the grief feels shared, but it’s not. Knowing a little about grief, I am sad any family has to endure it. I wish I could tell the Newtown families that it gets easier.
In light of last week’s events, I have heard people vow acts of kindness to one another, vowing to honor the memories of the victims. I am hoping this sentiment will carry forward into the new year.
In the meantime, be gracious and smile. It’s all we can do.