Broken Hearts

Exploring myths and truths about grief, loss, and recovery.

Newtown—Our Grief, Because We Are The Family of Humankind

The preciousness of each life lost hits home with exponential force.

Certain events have the power to propel us into an emotional numbness, as if a hidden thermostat inside our hearts shuts us off. The pain is too much to bear. 

Almost exactly eight years ago, on Sunday, December 26, 2004, we bore witness to such an event. The recorded sights and sounds of the Indian Ocean Tsunami entered our consciousness on the all-too-graphic wings of televised news reports. As with the repeated images of the World Trade Towers collapsing to earth, we were once again left with feelings that seemed impossible to accommodate. 

Those two paragraphs were the opening of an article we wrote in the aftermath of the tsunami that left 230,000 dead in its wake. The title of the article was Because We Are The Family Of Humankind

On Friday, December 14th, 2012, another shock wave hit us with the news from Newtown, Connecticut. Though the number of people who died is radically different from the tsunami, the preciousness of each life lost hits home with exponential force, regardless of their ages. Once more we must lead with, Because We Are The Family Of Humankind.

We've used that title or subtitle many times—too many times now. We also used it in describing our response 9/11, to the Columbia Space Shuttle Disaster, and the back-to-back Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the devastation they wrought.

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In each of those events, we wrote about the fact that most of us never knew any of the victims of those tragedies, whether they were caused by nature at its most violent, man at his worst, or in the case of the Shuttle, pure accident. Even though we may not have known anyone who died in those events, we were all dramatically, emotionally affected. Because we are all children of someone. Some of us are brothers or sisters; husbands or wives. We are family. We are friends. And every relationship we have is precious.

When we hear tragic news, we naturally think about what we might be feeling if it were one or more of our people who were taken from us. And if we're not directly involved, our hearts go to the people who've been in our lives, but are no longer here.

We write the same headline today Because We Are Still The Family Of Humankind.

Grief Collides with the Holiday Season

The travesty of Newton puts grief in the forefront of our hearts and minds. There are many families who will sit down to holiday dinner tables this year very much aware of someone missing, someone who has always been there, who died during the past year.

For others it will be the first holiday table after a divorce, and though their feelings are caused by a different loss, their emotions are none-the-less powerful.

Some people will want to skip that holiday dinner, fearful of the feelings they know will surface. We hope they don't stay away. We hope they not only come to the dinner, but that they talk openly about missing the person who's gone.

Memories, with Tears and Laughter Attached

My mother died nineteen years ago the day before Thanksgiving. On Thanksgiving day, I was on a plane flying to Florida, still shocked at my mother's sudden death. In the daze my family was in, with brothers, sisters, and grandkids arriving from all over the country at all hours, we didn't have a formal Thanksgiving dinner that year.

The next year was the first holiday gathering for me after my mother had died. We were at a friend's house with about 20 people we knew. When we all sat down at the table, I took a liberty and stood up and offered the first toast. With tears in my eyes, and a crack in my voice, I toasted my mom—and everyone else who was missing.

Most of the people at that table had never met my mom, but one after the other, everybody stood up and toasted someone from their life. And there were stories and there were tears, and there was laughter, all attached to the memories. And nobody was forgotten.

It's sad enough when those we love are no longer physically here. It's even sadder when we don't talk about them.

It is now a tradition that no matter where we are, I make the first toast and start the emotional ball rolling—Because We Are All Part Of The Family of Humankind.

Russell Friedman is Executive Director of The Grief Recovery Institute, and co-author of The Grief Recovery Handbook, When Children Grieve, and Moving On.

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