In our present-day society, we are regularly confronted with acts of violence that are at once shocking and simply unimaginable. If we scrutinize the images of survivors, friends, colleagues, and loved ones we see in their faces the unspeakable pain and sorrow of intense, personal grief. The picture of a heartbroken mother with the cross of Ash Wednesday still freshly signed on her forehead told the story of shock, destruction, and despair that devastated the entire community of Parkland, Florida, and indeed the entire world on a holy day of remembrance.
If we read beyond the headlines, we realize that hundreds, perhaps even thousands of people are exponentially affected by the death of one they know and love. As passive bystanders, we witness events that testify to the force of evil at work in the world and struggle with what we should be feeling beyond our immediate emotions of shock and anger. At the edge of our disbelief we seek to understand the motivation of the perpetrator and try to make sense of the senseless.
When incidents of unprovoked, random violence occur in quick succession, as in recent days and weeks, they vie for our emotional attention. Think for a moment about the January 15, 2022 hostage standoff at Congregation Beth-Israel in Colleyville, Texas, the recent shootings in Buffalo, New York, the terror attack on a Taiwanese congregation at worship, or the predatory invasion of Ukraine by the Soviet Union.
Collateral grief is our response to the pain and suffering of others, which we express as compassion—from a distance. The word compassion comes from the Latin meaning “co-suffering”. Compassion, then, is our ability to feel into the suffering of others with kindness, care, and love. Whether we realize it or not, we are all experiencing collateral grief in some way at this particular time in our lives.
Fueled by exuberant media coverage and the extremes of geography, place, and time, when our emotions ricochet from one tragedy to the next, our compassion may feel oddly fractured. Often there is simply not enough time between events for our emotional equilibrium to recover.
And so we respond to each tragic occurrence with a kind of frantic spiritual energy. The effect is, that as we pray fervently for each person affected, our capacity for compassion may feel overwhelmed and spiritually exhausted. This is sometimes described as compassion fatigue.
Recently, a perplexed acquaintance asked, “How am I supposed to understand the incomprehensible death of so many innocent victims?” Her spiritual confusion describes how many of us react to senseless violence and death. The answer to her question is this: though we may understand the grief we feel, God has not endowed us as human beings with the ability to understand death.
Nor does God provide us with a logical explanation for the “Why” of acts of random violence, terrorism, natural disasters, or a global pandemic. When tragic events occur, beyond some insight that may suggest a motive, as human beings we simply do not have access to the mysteries that God alone fully understands.
Those who have had a first-person experience of death and grief are especially sensitized to the suffering of others. We feel our hearts stirred to compassion when we look into the traumatized faces of innocent, unsuspecting victims. Think for a moment about the fear of immigrant children who have been separated from their parents. Or the uncertainty of displaced refugees or families huddled in a subway station not knowing where to go or what to do to find safety. Collateral Grief, then, is our compassionate, arm’s length participation in the pain and suffering of others.
Our best response to Collateral Grief is Collateral Grace, the outpouring of our compassion to those we do not know. Because God calls us to be agents of compassion, how do we live into Collateral Grace?
- We offer our compassion through prayer, in spiritual solidarity with all those who are marginalized by acts of violence, public outrage, and protest.
- We disavow every expression of racism, discrimination, and bigotry, and bear witness to the power and grace of God by what we say and how we live.
- We acknowledge that every person—without exception—is a beloved child of God, in the certain belief that God is faithful to us all.
The Apostle Paul encourages us to engage in the compassion of Collateral Grace,
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.
2 Corinthians 1:3-4