You’d think that as a society, we’d get better at handling “mass shootings” given how frequently they seem to happen. By this, I don’t mean prevention, legislation, or relief efforts. I mean how “the rest of us, at large” react to the news breaking.
People who call for a period of mourning are mocked. “Thoughts and prayers are ineffective, now is the time for action.” Before we even know what happened, solutions are demanded, and blame is assigned.
It seems so silly to be writing this. In the midst of tragedy, I’m writing an article to police how we respond to said tragedy. But the fact of the matter is our response has become part of the problem.
Grief: A Nationwide Impact
Shootings impact all of us through varying degrees of separation, even if you live hundreds of miles away. Teachers and parents obviously feel immediately for any event that happens at school. Emergency responders and health care workers are a tightly knit group, and feel deeply for their brothers and sisters on the line, knowing it may one day be them. The rest of us are quickly drawn into the train wreck of the 24-hour news cycle and Facebook skirmishes.
Our nation is already drawn taut over so many issues, and no one seems to think the divisions are getting any better. Horrific events like these only grate away at what fragile unity we have left; and wear us down physically, spiritually, and mentally. Despite all our “efforts”, it’s only a matter of time until the next shooting rolls around.
Jonathan Coulton has perfectly captured the burnout from recurring unresolved tragedies in a song off his recent album, “Solid State”:
All at once, it fills up my feed
More bad news that I didn’t need
I can’t stop reading but I wish that I didn’t know
Still too soon, there’s not much to say
They don’t know, but talk anyway
All of the pieces and none of the places they go
Find your feet, bend at the knees
Hold your breath, these things come in threes
Try me tomorrow, today has been laying me low
So I am looking at pictures of cats
Initially, this song may seem a little selfish. Innocent people — good people just died, and all you can do is feel sorry for yourself? Isn’t there something we could do right now? Perhaps take some action to prevent this from happening again?
This is disenfranchised grief — stealing someone’s need to mourn by trivializing and shaming them for their emotions, and demanding they substitute action for their grief. Any article you find on mourning will stress the importance of processing grief. Failure to do so can be ruinous: emotional numbness, anger, and despair. Just because you live hundreds of miles away doesn’t mean that grief is inappropriate. In actuality, it may be necessary.
How (not) to Process Grief
Articles on grieving are a bit paradoxical. On one hand, they assert “there’s no wrong way to grieve”, but go on to list the following wrong ways:
- Trying to “fix” the loss
- Trying to rationalize or explain the loss
- Being judgmental
- Trivializing grief
“But aren’t solutions and rationalizations expressions of grief?” you may ask. “Why don’t they help? And if someone were lashing out in anger, isn’t it their own way of processing grief, and therefore correct?”
Here’s my resolution to this apparent contradiction: no way is wrong to grieve when you are immediately and directly impacted. But with distance and time, certain reactions become detrimental — especially as a support role.
Here’s a scenario to illustrate this. You’re at a funeral for a son who unexpectedly lost his parent to a heart attack. In a moment of intense grief, the son has an emotional outburst: “why couldn’t the doctors have done more?”
Two people come forward to comfort the grieving son. The youngest, a high school student who can’t possibly understand the complexities of the medical field butts in: “Yeah, #$*@ the health care system, we need reform, now!” and awkwardly tries to start a chant.
“Medicine can’t prevent death, only delay it,” says the fitness geek who’s always proselytizing for the Church of CrossFit. “The only thing that would have saved him was a better diet twenty years ago”, he responds indignantly, while handing out flyers for his gym.
It may be understandable for the son to make these statements — but not his friends. True, health care needs reform, and regular exercise is important — but that doesn’t help the son in this moment. It doesn’t fix or explain the loss, and the drama only compounds the son’s grief by failing to acknowledge it. The deceased, the son, and the son’s grief get pushed off the stage so that “social progress” can advance before the corpse gets too cold.
How to Grieve (as an Outsider)
“Ring Theory” helps understand how to avoid saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. It starts with placing the afflicted person at the center of the circle. Immediately surrounding the person is their family. Surrounding the family is the friends. Surrounding the friends is the fringe community. Each layer around the person has a degree of separation, and is structured to put those with the greater needs in the center.
The first thing to understand is that comfort and support should flow inwards to the center of the circle. The afflicted should be supported by their community — not the other way around! There’s a fairly good chance that for a “shooting spree”, you’re on the outer most edges of the circle. This raises an important question: if those on the edge want to grieve, where does it go? Beyond fellow people on the edge, there is only one place for it to go: the creator.
You keep track of all my sorrows.
You have collected all my tears in your bottle.
You have recorded each one in your book. — Psalm 56:8
…cast all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. — 1 Peter 5:7
So if the event happened in another state and you have no ties to anyone directly involved, start with this: turn off the news. Log out of Facebook. Mute Twitter. There is absolutely nothing you can do to help, and the only thing worse than being a gawking bystander is being a loud, obnoxious gawking bystander. Turn off social media, stop checking the news. Like buzzards, the news circle tragedies because it drives ad revenue.
Next, be patient. If you’re lucky, concrete facts will arrive the next day. We all want to know “why”, but the depressing fact is we may never get an answer. Put off checking the news until after dinner. In the mean time, grieve. Hug your spouse/kids. Pet your dog. Listen to your sad playlist. Look at pictures of cats on the internet. Call on your community to pray. But don’t be the two friends at the funeral. Remember: support flows inward.
In the following days, find something constructive to do. Volunteering has been shown to be effective in dealing with depression by transitioning your concern from an internal focus to an external focus. Perhaps you may build just enough of a support network for someone to prevent them from flaming out in suicide or a killing spree. It may be trite, but this is what it means to be the change you want to see in the world.
If none of this seems very helpful, you are correct. I have no real solutions, only examples of things not to do. At the best, my advice simply stops making a bad situation worse.
Some people may argue that if you aren’t part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. I’ll counter with this: good solutions are hard, and being part of the problem is very easy. Make sure you aren’t part of the problem before trying to be part of the solution.