Freedom to Grieve

Protecting grief from "closure," consumerism, politics, and other cultural distortions

How Do We Keep Caring in a Broken World of Pain?

In a dark world, we must focus on helping.

On an early Friday evening, my daughters and I sat on an outdoor patio at a local restaurant. I gazed at their expressive faces, delighting in their laughter and conversation. Our peace evaporated as a van pulled up in the parking lot next to us. At first the sounds from the vehicle were fine. Then their two-year old girl started to get out the wrong side of the van. Well, the wrong side according to her father. He yelled at her to go to the other side. She still tried to get out. He grabbed her and yelled louder. She screamed and called him a name. He yelled back and physically moved her to the other side.

I watched, waiting to see if intervention would be needed. Then I turned in time to see tears streaming down my youngest daughter’s face. She had stopped eating, as we all did, as she worried about that little girl.

I said, “She’ll be okay.” My daughter nodded bravely. Of course, I don’t know for sure. In that moment, it appeared the little girl was going to be fine based on the eventual resolution. But what might happen if her father’s anger grows even more violent? How might the harsh language affect her ability to care and love? We live in a dark world where bad things happen. How do we help?

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The next day, my daughter walked into my office and glanced at the computer. The headline of the news article on the screen referred to the dead body of Michael Brown lying in the street. I said, “Don’t read it.” I didn’t think she needed the details at that point. But I could tell she already caught the headline. She looked down, eyes filling. I gently told her, “There are a lot of bad things in the world. You know some of them and you will learn more as you get older, but you will also keep learning how to help. We need to focus on how to help.” She nodded. I know I have to help her keep the empathy and sensitivity without being overwhelmed with sadness.

In my research, teaching, and church ministry, I frequently hear the pain of others. I listen to the news and it can get depressing. I survive by focusing on trying to help.

But how do we help? We can get lost in thinking that we have to be present in the current tragedies that fill the news. People wonder, “How do we help a situation like the painful events in Ferguson, MO? How do we help those facing death and torture in countries around the world?” It can be misleading to think those are the places where most of us are going to help. Yes, we need some people there. But most of us are called to help right where we are.

Reach out to your neighbor, a stranger in line with you, an acquaintance, or a friend. Look around your community and see what can be done to foster peace and offer kindness. We strive to prevent tomorrow’s violence by nurturing today’s relationships. Be kind and patient. Listen to others. Let people share their hurt. Be open to tears. Talk to people different from you in order to understand their lives better. Pray for guidance in how to offer love and grace more than judgment.

I know this may sound simplistic. With the complicated struggles in the world, it may feel like the simple acts of kindness are too little. But if we don’t start with the basics, we cannot provide a foundation from which to foster understanding and peaceful resolutions to conflict. I enjoy the story of how the legendary basketball coach John Wooden would start practice with his team. He taught them how to put on socks. He said they had to make sure there were no wrinkles in the socks. Then he showed them how to properly tie the shoes so the socks stayed in place, preventing blisters. He started with the basics. We cannot overlook the simple acts of kindness and the attention to getting wrinkles out of relationships early so that we prevent the blisters later.

When I see the fresh tears streaking my child’s face, I remember how precious, and sometimes scarce, are the gifts of compassion and empathy. We cannot give up caring even when surrounded by news of sad, traumatic, violent events. We need more compassion and kindness.

Feel the tears of empathy. Then focus on what you can do to help someone near you.

 

 

 

 

Nancy Berns, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Drake University and the author of Closure: The Rush to End Grief and What It Costs Us.

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