As the world watched in stunned disbelief, on August 8, 2023, the historic town of Lahaina in Hawaii was all but destroyed by raging wildfires driven by high winds. According to Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen, “Tragedy that hits one of us is felt by all of us. These past few days, the resolve of our families, businesses and visitors have been tested like never before in our lifetime.”
When an entire community is stunned by tragedy, a kind of collective grief envelops everyone, whether or not their life is touched directly by loss. This grief is often more intense in small communities where there are few degrees of separation among neighbors, friends, and family. People know one another, many from birth, and are related by generations of ancestors committed to a shared geographic or religious heritage.
If we are onlookers rather than active participants in the grief of others, our sacred responsibility at a time of community crisis is to be present to the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of others. We respond with compassion and comfort to the outcry of those whose lives are unalterably changed by the events of collective grief.
After one local tragedy in which a church building was seriously damaged, a reporter showed members of the congregation worshiping on Sunday in an open field. In the bright sunshine of a beautiful spring day, life’s extremes and dreams collided as those gathered shared their collective and individual grief. Amid the public and private outpouring of love and care, there were tears. There was sadness. There was determination. There was hope, “And now, O Lord, what do I wait for? My hope is in you” (Psalm 39:7). And there was joy simply to be alive, connected heart to heart in the sacred bond of community.
The nature of collective grief is that sometimes it lifts rather quickly. For example, when those believed to be responsible for acts of terrorism are apprehended or identified, a sense of relief is felt by those whose lives have been singularly focused on the fear and tension caused by the unknown. When grief blankets an entire community, the rites and rituals of collective grief comfort and reassure for the moment.
Within the collective strength of every community that lives through and survives the experience of grief, there is an untapped reservoir of spiritual power. This is the strength we find only in God. This is the strength that reveals the very nature of God, “But my eyes are turned toward you, O God, my Lord; in you I seek refuge; do not leave me defenseless” (Psalm 14:8).
Yet long after the solemn occasions of public remembrance are over and a community resumes the rhythm of life in the mainstream, whether rebuilding or finding the resolve to move forward, those whose loved ones have died grieve on. There will always be lingering collective grief in Newtown, Connecticut for the twenty-six dedicated teachers and innocent children capriciously slain on a tragic day in December 2012. It could not be otherwise. Those who survive live with chronic pain, deep, personal heartache, and endless conjecture about a future that will never be—the what if and if only at the core of the great, unanswered why.
The grief of an entire community in Uvalde, Texas is layered with both frustration and anger over the hesitation of those who might have intervened and saved precious lives. The intensity of emotions rooted in the complex of perceived or real injustice compound both individual and collective grief. For most, these emotions may linger for a lifetime. Resolution is found only in forgiveness and release, a difficult spiritual challenge that requires the single-minded resolve of faith.
Grief insists that we acknowledge what we are feeling about the death of one we love. It is a faith journey of self-discovery experienced within the solitude and silence of the heart. Though grief is often experienced within a dedicated community, such as a grief support group, we cannot use the safety of communal sharing to hide from ourself. When we grieve, we must confront our loss and pain at that deep personal place of the soul where we examine our heart, wrestle with our doubts, and grow into a richer, fuller faith. Ultimately, it is our faith that leads us away from grief toward emotional recovery and spiritual wholeness.
In the presence of God, we find comfort, the comfort that sustains us when the pain of collective grief seems almost unbearable. We are assured by the promise of faith that in life, in death, in life beyond death—and in our grief—God is with us, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you, and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. Do not fear, for I am with you” (Isaiah 43:1-2,5). Thanks be to God. We are not alone.
His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and excellence. For this very reason, you must make every effort to support your faith with excellence, and excellence with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love.
2 Peter 1: 3, 5-7