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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An Open Letter to a Toxic Couple (5 things not to do)

Dear Toxic Couple,

I call you that because a few nights ago, I lay in bed listening to you shouting for over an hour. My thin apartment walls let every word through, and by the time I fell asleep, you had sketched your relationship for me. From your argument, I gather you’re engaged to be married and that one of you recently disclosed information about painful past events and relationships.

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I’ve been privy to and participant in countless fights, shouting matches, and tearful discussions. But for some reason, your fight got under my skin. It wasn’t just the invasive volume; loud voices can’t explain why now, days later, someone else’s fight still troubles me. I think it’s because you gave vivid examples of abusive tactics I’ve read about but never witnessed directly.

You, sir, cared more about being right than about loving her.

I listened to you ridicule, condemn, and dismiss her pain, her convictions, her family, her choices, and her person. When she had the courage to say, “You’re being hurtful, and it’s not okay,” I listened to say, “No I’m not.” More than once, your response was, “You need to let that go.” When she tried to explain how she felt, I heard you interrupt her mid-sentence, blatantly tell her that her perceptions were wrong, and then have the audacity to say, “You need to stop interrupting and show some respect.”

I fought the urge to bang on the wall and shout, “She’s right! You’re being awful! Listen to her!” I thought better of that, and instead of barging in on someone else’s conversation, I’m writing this: an open letter to remind you of things that are never, ever okay in a relationship.

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1. Ridiculing insecurities.
She trusted you enough to share deep hurts, secrets, regrets, and convictions, and you have a responsibility as a decent human being—not to mention as the man who claims love her—to respect that trust. She gave you the gift of trust by showing you where you could hurt her most. You should now know how to protect her, not how to wound her. No matter how heated the argument, those insecurities are absolutely off limits, and you lowered yourself by attacking her vulnerable points.

2. Negating pain.
When she says, “You hurt me,” I don’t care how innocent your intentions were, you stop immediately and apologise. What’s real to her is the pain she feels, not the intentions you claim. Instead of apologising, you told her to get over it, to let it go. You told her that her hurt wasn’t real, wasn’t significant—you were insulting, cruel, and, frankly, wrong. Your reaction to her pain was a form of gaslighting, an abusive emotional manipulation tactic. I never heard you apologise. Not once.

3. Attacking family.
Family is like extra weight or grey hairs: if they’re yours, you can make them the butt of the joke, but if they’re not, treat them with respect and discretion. From your shouting match, I gathered you think her family did something worthy of eternal hatred, but she wants to forgive and reconcile. I don’t know her family (and according to her, neither do you). What I do know is that attacking the people she loves is petty and unlikely to either improve their relationship or encourage her to leave a toxic situation. If you think her family is coming between you, a rational conversation might be warranted, but vicious insults are not. And unless her family is actually hurting her, you trying to separate them is emotional manipulation on your part and is a warning sign she should know to look for.

4. Demanding respect without giving it.
When you ended your tirade, she tried to explain how she felt. You interrupted every other sentence to tell her she was wrong. You never listened or gave her time to talk out her perspective. And then you had the nerve to tell her she should stop interrupting and respect you. And she tried. She spoke rationally. She never attacked you personally. But you have no right to demand respect when you treat her with such harshness. As it happened, she was already showing respect whether you deserved it or not; you demanded submission, and I applaud her refusal.

5. Using “I love you” as an excuse. 
What really turned my stomach as I listened was your use of, “I love you.” You fitted it in between insult and disparagement, first telling her she should “get over it,” then telling her your harshness stemmed from love. You made it sound like she owed you something, like you did her a favour by declaring affection, and in return she should agree with you and forget the ways you ridiculed her. But love does not attack; love protects. It does not wound; it comforts. It does not demand; it gives. “I love you” is never an excuse for the type of cruelty I heard from you.

I want to believe this argument represented an anomaly in your relationship, that you were both tired, stressed, caving to human pressures and saying things usually wouldn’t and truly regret. I want to think you’ve sat down since then and had a real conversation—one in which you listened to each other, refrained from interrupting, acknowledged the awful things you said, took responsibility, forgave each other.

If not, then I hope, ma’am, that you keep the strong voice I heard through the walls when you told him how unacceptable you found his words. I hope you raise it in protest and, if it comes down to it, in finality. There is much to be said for forgiving, loving, accepting others with all their flaws. But if his “love” crushes, manipulates, and wounds you, walk away. You deserve a healthy love, one that respects, encourages, and shelters you.

Sincerely,

Elizabeth

Broken Things

When my brother’s wrist broke, he looked perfectly fine.

None of us knew it was broken. He played like normal. But he reacted to the slightest jostle. A bump against the counter or an unintentional shove while roughhousing brought an abrupt flood of tears and disproportionate anger. Two weeks later, an x-ray showed the fracture.

When my heart breaks, I look perfectly fine.

Nobody knows I’m broken. I live like normal—I smile, I laugh, I sing. But I react to the slightest jostle. My tears flood on the inside, and my manners ice over to hide the disproportionate rage at whoever inadvertently bumped my wound.

wounded

The sign-in sheet is clearly marked: Name. Class designation. Hometown. Major.

Wait. Go back.

Hometown.

My heart skids to a thudding, trembling stop. I freeze, pencil wavering above the page, forcing slow breaths as black spots swirl before my eyes.

Hometown.

I was born in Michigan’s golden autumn. I lived in four states by the time I was two and spent most of elementary school drenched by Panama’s tropical rainstorms. In junior high, we moved to wide deserts beneath Arizona’s vivid sunsets. After I left for university, my parents moved again.

Hometown.

A word that evokes warm memories and loyalty in others stirs in me only agonised confusion. Usually context gives me the answer. Like a clever student with an unexpected exam, I gauge the circumstances, read between the lines, and choose a response:

“My parents live in Arizona.”

“I was raised in Panama.”

“I was born in Michigan.”

 Hometown.

I can’t guess this one. Panic tastes like acid in my throat.

The girl behind me offers some help: “Where do you live?”

Wherever my pillow is. Right now—my dorm.

My face burns as I scribble the first address that comes to mind and rush away, that break inside me throbbing.

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“Time heals all wounds.”

No. Time acclimates us to pain. Time buries scars under layers of new memories. But deep wounds never really close up.

They put a cast on my brother’s wrist. It healed. Now you’d never know it was broken.

There is no cast for my heart.

But maybe, in a tiny, infinitely significant way, those golden autumn leaves balance out the bleeding inside me. The thundering tropical rains and sunset lightning storms over desert mountains—maybe, inexplicably, impossibly, they soothe the ache.