Grief: A Sacred Space

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“Most of us on campus today don’t know any of these people. Most of us weren’t here. Most of us have no idea. But here we are, to remember together an event, a day, a world of emotion that most of us don’t know. It’s a painful, terrible, beautiful thing.”

I wrote those words in my journal yesterday, when I had the privilege of taking part in a memorial ceremony for the tenth anniversary of a van accident that took the lives of five at my university.

Recently my anthropology professor said that it takes only a generation to forget—and at a university, where generations pass every four years, forgetting is a rapid process. Events, traditions, and stories are lost in the flow of life, buried beneath the ongoing cycle of graduations and freshman orientations.

Ten years. Two and a half generations. And yesterday, we who have no memory of the tragedy joined with those whose lives were intrinsically caught up in it, and together we mourned.

That story—the story of death and loss that touched so many lives that were not mine—finally touched my life, ten years later, through the tears and words of those who lived it. Somehow, a decade after a loss I did not know, I was invited into a private, painful place and allowed to weep over a grief not mine.

And this, I think, is the most beautiful thing we as humans can do. To tell stories that are not ours, to feel emotions we should have no part in, to be united in another’s grief. It’s a humble position that we take, setting aside our own joys and sorrows to focus on someone else’s, laying aside our burdens, not to lift theirs, because we could never do that, but to join them beneath the weight.

This, I think, is the essence of love—that we who know nothing of their pain willingly step into a darkness we can never lighten, choosing simply to be present, and that they, who know nothing of us, allow us into that sacred space.

Yesterday, together, we told a story that was not ours to tell—because community has a responsibility to remember, to keep telling stories that are not ours but that are important. And today I have no solutions to offer. I have only this—this sense of awe at the terrible beauty of shared loss, this sense of wonder at the holy place I was allowed to enter, washed in the grief of strangers.

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Why We Love Sorrow

I generally avoid crying in public. By “avoid,” I mean I will chew my cheeks and tongue raw, imagine professors in old-fashioned bathing costumes, resort to sharp sarcasm–do almost anything–to pull myself out of emotion’s current. But a few days ago, I shamelessly cried in a theatre full of friends and strangers.

My university’s theatre department put on A Piece of My Heart, a play that tells the stories of women who served in Vietnam. I, along with the rest of the audience, felt a piece of my own heart break off in the dark theatre on Friday night. And as I slowly wandered home through ice and snow, my breath rolling up like a fog machine’s expulsions toward stars like spotlights, I wondered what on earth induced me to stand in a crowded theatre, clapping and sobbing unashamedly.

Why do we love sorrow? Nicholas Sparks makes bank by killing off characters. The Fault in Our Stars raked in millions. Try imagining Harry Potter without all those beloved characters suffering and dying. Why do we cling to things that rip our hearts out?

I don’t claim to know the deep secrets of humanity, but here are some thoughts:

loneliness

Loneliness is normal. We live surrounded by people, and, pressed into the crowds, we feel inexplicably alone. People ask, “How are you?” and we say, “Fine” even when we’re not. In the midst of sorrow or pain, we fight a lonely battle without support or camaraderie. Stories of others’ struggles remind us that we are not alone. Though I’ve never worn military fatigues or nursed battle wounds, I identify with the emotions portrayed in this play. Stress. Overwhelming odds. The conviction that the struggle will never end. The expectation of relief–an expectation constantly disappointed by one more emergency, one more demand.

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Happiness makes us suspicious. Faerie-tales end with “happily ever after,” but life doesn’t, and we all learned this early. “You can’t have everything you want,” our mothers told us. “C’est la vie,” the cliched phrase reminds us. Stories of happy people succeeding provide some relief from real life. Stories of struggling people fighting against horrible odds, failing and getting up again, making bad decisions and living with them, forcing every step–those stories resonate with us. Those stories echo with a truth we’ve grown unaccustomed to and thirsty for in this world of airbrushed models and too-bright advertisements.

voice

We all want a voice. In a society lived online through Facebook statuses, Tweets, and blogposts, it seems like everyone has a voice. And in so much noise, individual voices disappear. When our hearts are breaking, we post about our photogenic Starbucks breakfasts. Keeping track of our likes and reblogs teaches us that humour is rewarded and authenticity ignored. Good stories of grief and pain give a voice to our own feelings when we feel muzzled by the world. Fiction tells common truth more eloquently and accurately than we can on our own.

And in the end, despite the artificial smoke from the fog machine clogging my lungs, the cramps in my legs from sitting still too long, and the ache behind my eyes from flashing lights, my soul stirs at the beautiful portrayal of truths society likes to shy away from and my heart pounds in rhythm with heartbeats of strangers, friends, acquaintances, professors. For a few hours, we shared an experience–shared sorrow and joy, rage and hope–and that shared emotion is something comedy never offers.