Second Wind

How to keep pace with the marathon of life

Grieving During These Holy Days

Questions--not answers--for a difficult time

I was working on a newsletter article to send out to my mailing list about gathering strength for the final push of the celebratory holiday season, ready to wish everyone a Merry Whatever You Celebrate. I was writing at a coffee shop, blissfully unaware of the news coming out of Connecticut as I sat alone with my thoughts and my computer and my latte.

When I came home, planning to change into my running clothes and head out for a short break from my work, I flipped on the TV and saw the news. Then I didn't get up off the couch for two hours. And I knew I had to change what I was planning to write.

How do we make sense of such a tragedy? More than two dozen people killed by a troubled young man with a gun and (most likely) a mental illness of some kind! The faces of shock, the President's tearful address, and the repeating video of children rushing out of their school building all made my heart physically hurt inside my chest cavity. I'm sure this was true for you, too.

Over the years (often during the holiday season when memories seem particularly powerful), as I have sat with many precious people in my therapy room, I've heard hundreds of personally tragic stories of abuse, violence, death, and deep injustice. Many of these stories have been told to me tearfully by individuals in the throes of terrible turmoil. In my experience, there is no clear way to make sense of one person perpetrating indelible, violent damage or death on another. There is no simple way to heal: no prayer, no words, no therapy that can take certain kinds of pain away. The only thing that can be done is to learn, over time and with much inner work, how to live in relationship with such terrible grief and anger so that it does not destroy the one who carries the pain in his or her psyche/body.

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Of course, those of us who are observers of the violence done to others must respond to what we see and hear. Right now, we must all process what it means that someone walked into an elementary school full of children eleven days before Christmas and took so many lives.

I certainly don't have any easy answers--only some questions and reflections for what they are worth:

  • How do you grieve? Do not hesitate to do this thing. Our collective consciousness needs us all to attend to our individual and community pain--not to make sense of it, but to care for it.
  • What actions can we take individually and as a country/society to deal with mental illness and prevent violence more effectively? Whose job is it to make this a safer nation?
  • What can you and I do to contribute to healing and peace in our spheres of influence, however small?
  • Is there a gift you have been meaning to bring into the world? A piece of art? A word of grace or encouragement? A helping hand? A scream of protest? What are you waiting for?
  • How can you make the holidays ( holy-days) ahead truly consecrated, held apart from the average workaday business to acknowledge how sacred life is?

As we bring 2012 to a close, we have plenty of tragic memories to reflect on along with all of the moments of great joy and laughter that have occurred over the past twelve months. Grief and joy live side by side as siblings in the family of inner realities we all experience in our lives; we need not banish one in order to acknowledge the other. We can care for and nurture them both.

May you gently care for all that is alive for you this season. May we all find peace.

Cami Ostman, M.S., is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Washington State and the author of Second Wind: One Woman's Midlife Quest to Run Seven Marathons on Seven Continents. more...

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