grief

Boston: Stories of compassion

boston

Earlier today, explosions rocked the Boston Marathon, resulting in deaths, injuries, and widespread fear through the city I now call home. I have never quite known what to say in the wake of a tragedy and my inclination has always been to say very little and, instead, to watch, to hope, to hold humans in my heart.

As phone calls and text messages started pouring in, the irony was not lost on us or on most of our friends that we have had to do this before: The shock after a bombing, the cycle of calling and texting, the confusion, the indignation at injustice. The brain has a way of linking these experiences together and every image of the blasts in Boston calls back the sounds of blasts in Uganda and Gaza and Bogotá and Jerusalem.

We are safe, and blessed with love---and, as we heal, we count those blessings.

Boston is a home so full of compassion that the Red Cross blood banks are full, only hours after the events transpired.

Boston is a home so full of compassion that some marathoners ran straight from the finish line to the hospital to donate blood.

Boston is a home so full of compassion that Bostonians are opening their homes to stranded runners, spectators, and their families who may need a place to stay for the night.

Boston is a home so full of compassion that in my graduate school community, within minutes of the explosions, students created a spreadsheet to track down runners and spectators, offered one another rides to get out of the blast zone, tracked down those who were momentarily unaccounted for, and held one another in kindness as we struggled to process what happened. Boston is a home full of humbling compassion.

The Atlantic is compiling these stories of kindness here today, and it is to these that we turn for hope in the wake of tragedy.

So now we wait. We share meals and feed one another. We watch TV together because companionship alleviates pain, and we turn it off when solace and quiet serve us better. We resist the inclination to judge or to jump to conclusions or to spread rumors. We photograph the beautiful sunset, or walk our dogs, or fold the laundry, in search of beauty or normalcy in the face of injustice. We shower our first responders with gratitude, and we are thankful for those who keep us safe and informed under these circumstances. We hold the wounded and those whom we have lost in our hearts, and open our hugs to those still in shock or grieving. We mourn together, as a community. We look for the light in our collective home. We ask questions, with patience through the slowness of the answers. We extend compassion. We love. We keep our hearts soft, stirring for hope and for the stories that will continue to fuel our faith in humanity.

This essay was originally posted on Stories of Conflict and Love.

How to See in the Dark

Asking For It with Sibyl

Sibyl, In the past few months, my family has suffered two major tragedies, and a few minor ones.  Now every time my husband leaves the house and doesn't answer his cell phone I think he's dead.  Most of me knows this is irrational, but until he gets home or contacts me, I'm a bit of a mess.  I can't afford the $170/hr to see a shrink, but sometimes I don't know how I'll move through the world without feeling at any moment someone I love could die or be hurt.  How can I move past this?

Sincerely,

Irrational

Dearest Irrational,

I have good news and bad news.  Since I know it would calm your anxiety to get it out of the way, let's start with the bad news.

You are not going to get past this.  It is going to become part of who you are.  These traumas, whatever they are, are changing and shaping you.  Who you become in the face of them is up to you.

We'll get to that.  Before you can worry about who you're going to be, you have to survive these first traumatized months.  First of all, explain to your husband that for right now, you need him to answer the phone every time you call.  He doesn't have to talk, he can answer with a text that just says "I'm here".  But for right now, that is what you need -- to know that he is alive.

It is perfectly okay to be Irrational right now, when life makes so little sense.  It’s okay to be a mess.  It’s okay to put your hands on his face every time he returns to you, and say, “I thought I lost you.  You’re back.  We’re home.”

If he really objects to this imposition, put a time limit on it, "I just need this for the next 2-4 weeks.  Then we can reassess."  Trauma is a huge relationship litmus test, so if he can be there for you in this, you will only get closer.

Now for some good news: you don’t have to go it alone.   Of course you can't afford $170/hour for a therapist.  Who can?  That fee is absurd.  I don't know where you live, but I bet there's a clinic or a graduate school nearby that has therapy interns that could see you for as little as $25/session.  If you live in California, and any of your recent tragedies are from violent crimes, you can get therapy through a program called Victims of Crime.

So, with a little bit of research about clinics, schools, and resources in your area, you can see a therapist that you can afford to help you through this time.  You'll have to go through this dark period of your life no matter what, but you shouldn't have to go through it without a guide.  Therapists are trained to walk alongside folks who have experienced tragedies while holding the lantern to help them see the way.

So, with your supports in place, you'll be able to dive in to the crux of the matter.  These recent tragedies have pulled the veil off of your life and you are seeing humans for what we really are: ephemeral.  Our lives, no matter how bright and beautiful, will one day pass away.  It is a horrible panic attack-inducing truth.  But it is also what makes our lives have a sense of urgency, what propels us to ever do anything of consequence, what gives us something worth fighting for.

When my beloved father died, I spent a grief-stricken winter laying face up on my bed, immobile, staring at the one lonely snowflake I had hung from my ceiling, reciting my favorite poems and feeling the chill of a world in which my anchor had been pulled up.  I was adrift.  And terrified.

So, when it came time to register for classes at my university, I signed up for an intense course in Death and Dying, in which we read 12 books about death; theological, philosophical, and personal texts.  The professor's father was dying as he taught the class.  He and I spent several afternoons in his office, laughing at the absurdity of death and sitting in silence at the horror of it.  It was insane to immerse myself so fully in my grief, but I had a therapist I trusted and my fiancee by my side, so I dove in.  I needed to make sense of the world before I could commit myself fully to living in it.

Perhaps you are not about to take such an undeniably intellectual pursuit.  However, do something to make sense of your world, or you will find yourself trying to control it in odd ways.  Pulling out bits of your hair and lining them up in straight rows, restricting certain foods to cheat death's knocking, calling your loved ones obsessively -- I've been there, I know this behavior.  But how you face these tragedies will direct a good portion of your life.  Don't judge yourself for however you experience grief, but strive to get the better of it.  Just the fact that you wrote in to this column shows you are ready to face these fears.

Finally, do something that makes you feel really alive.  Take up boxing, write a poem every day, hike the hills behind your house, sing at a monthly open mic night.  Whatever it is, choose something that brings you close to the core of life, but does not throw you over.  Grind your feet into the earth, finding your shoring beneath you.

Remind yourself why you want to remain a citizen of this world.  Give yourself visceral experiences of the beauty of this life, despite the pain we inevitably incur.  Love so fiercely that death has no lasting sting, just a dull ache that reminds you that what you’ve lost lives on in you, propelling you to further bravery in loving.

Love,

Sibyl

Grief, love, and Joan Didion

eternally nostalgic

As far as thieves go, grief is the greatest one. She robs us of the people we love, but—perhaps most achingly—she zaps our ability to imagine the future. Lose a place, a person, or a love and, suddenly, measurements of time become irrelevant. Grief warps time; she renders our plans for next week and dreams for the next vacation incongruous. As Joan Didion put it in The Year of Magical Thinking: 

"We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all."

For the grieving, imagining a future day of being is a triumph over that "as we will one day not be at all" that Didion describes. Imagining the future is an act of boldness. Didion herself, in a description of her husband's desires for their shared trip to Paris, associates the wishful imagination of a future with being alive:

"He meant doing things not because we were expected to do them or had always done them or should do them, but because we wanted to do them. He meant wanting. He meant living."

My discontent with grief comes from its blocking my boundless want. By drawing strict lines between the living and those whom they lost, grief casts the world in harsh light. She makes it impossible to believe in forever. Instead, she injects a heinous pragmatism into sentiments that would rather be unadulterated by it.

***

My only antidote to that has been love -- the kind of love that floods every crack and fills the vacuums of loss with the promise of togetherness. I do not know Eleni and Stamati. I do not know anything about their love. All I know is that 46 years ago, on April 28, 1966, they felt something strong enough to carve it onto a brick on top of Lycabettus Hill, with all of Athens below serving as witness.

Maybe Eleni and Stamatis are now divorced. Or grieving. Or maybe they have been best friends all along. Or siblings.

What happened on April 28, 1966 on Lycabettus Hill is of little importance to me; rather, I am intrigued by Eleni and Stamatis' audacity. They left a bit of their heart printed so permanently onto a site in Athens that future travelers would have to experience it. That is the triumph of love over loss, of affection over grief, of dreaming over pain.

***

Like a band on its farewell tour, we loaded the car with wafers and pretzels and drove nearly 2,000 kilometers to say farewell to the country we called home and the home that housed our love. There are still wafer bits encrusted onto the map. Those were not the only tokens of the journey. Near the waterfalls of Banias, close to the Syrian border, he found a patch of wet cement. "E ♥ R" is still there.

I want us to go to Banias in 46 years. Or 32. 11? Next year? I want us to go to Banias at an undefined point in the future because love is the imagination of a future without an end point and, in that, it is a triumph over grief. I want to find us at Banias. If not the literal us, if not the "us" carved onto the cement, then the selves we once were.