In our present society, we’re continuously confronted with acts of violence that are at once shocking and simply unimaginable. The picture of a desperate, heartbroken mother with the cross of Ash Wednesday still freshly signed on her forehead told the story this week of the shock, destruction, and despair that devastated the community of Parkland, Florida on a holy day of remembrance.
If we scrutinize the faces of survivors, friends, colleagues, and loved ones photographed at their moment of most intense grief, we see clearly the inestimable pain and sorrow of personal, individual grief. When we read beyond the headlines, we are reminded that each life has its own unique story, and realize that the lives of hundreds, perhaps even thousands of people—neighbors, school friends, church communities, and on and on—are unalterably affected by the untimely death of those they know and love.
When death and life-altering injury overwhelm our individual and collective hearts, we’re left reeling, especially as we struggle with the “Why?”. We want to make sense of it all, yet there are no real answers. And though on some level we may grasp and at once reject the avowed motivation, what we witness up close and personal is the force of evil at work in the world.
Often, we flounder for what it is we should be feeling. Sometimes we’re surprised when the delayed reaction of our emotions—anger, outrage, disbelief, contempt— finally bubble to the surface. Yet at the far reach of our bewilderment, we find an emotional identity with what’s happened. Collateral grief is our most fundamental response to the pain and suffering of others, which we express as heartfelt compassion.
When sequential dire events vie for our emotional attention, our compassion easily ricochets from one tragedy to the next, fueled by exuberant media coverage and the extremes of geography, place, and time. We feel oddly splintered, fragmented in our ability to focus and respond with the concentration of spiritual and emotional energy that each occurrence merits. Our human limitation is that we cannot truly live into the grief of an entire community unless we are in some way personally affected.
As we encounter the reality of grief, which is the intuitive response of our mind, our body, and our spirit to death, often we find within our grief the best response to life’s worst tragedies—love. Without fully understanding the “Why?”, we seek some redemptive value, so that death will not have been in vain. We harness our grief-born love first to change our own heart, then slowly the world. And if not the whole world all at once, we start where we are to influence for good, trusting that our small ripple of love shared with others will one day become an exponential sea change.
Not long after the shootings in Sutherland Springs, Texas in November 2017, an acquaintance tossed this perplexed question into the universe, “How am I supposed to understand the incomprehensible death of so many innocent victims?” Her expression of spiritual confusion describes how many of us react to the vast range of complex emotions that confuse our collateral grief.
The answer is, that we are not. The God who created us to empathize with other human beings and react with an outpouring of love and compassion generally does not provide us with logical understanding or insight into the “why?” of random violence, terrorism, and natural disasters. Beyond some possible motivation of the perpetrator, we are not usually offered an explanation, a rationale, or access to the mysteries that God alone fully comprehends.
Our limitation of understanding urges us to the edge of our capacity for compassion—the unconditional, boundless gift of love that is ours to lavish on those whose lives are devastated by events beyond our mortal understanding. Compassion is the best expression of our collateral grief because it knows no end to its kindness, care, hope, and comfort.
Beyond God’s mysteries, our understanding and assurance lie in the certainty of God’s steady presence and constant care for each child of creation, both in life and in death, “Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand” Psalm 73:23 (NRSV).
Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
Psalm 73:25-26 (NRSV)
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