Sitting with sorrow and meeting it with kindness

I was sitting at my desk on Friday afternoon when I overheard a coworker say that there had been a shooting at a school in Connecticut. I’m sorry to say that I did not jump up in shock to get the details. My first thought was, “Not again. What’s wrong in this country that this keeps happening?” Between the recent shooting at a mall in Oregon, at least two stories earlier in the month of children in Philadelphia finding a parent’s gun at home and in one case accidently shooting a young sibling, in the other shooting herself in the foot, and the multiple other mass shootings that we have heard about this year, I almost feel that we are being desensitized to the news of these horrific events.

It wasn’t until I was driving home that evening that I started to hear some details on the radio, though information was still relatively sparse. Over the course of that evening and the days that followed, painful details began to unfold before us. First the numbers: 20 children and six adults killed. That first night, I watched some TV coverage of the tragic event, and I saw the smiling face of the school principal and of a 27-year-old first-grade teacher who were both killed. I cried as I listened to another first-grade teacher tell her story of herding 15 students into a tiny bathroom in the class, reassuring them and telling them to stay very quiet. Telling them she loved them all because she thought that might be the last thing that they would hear. Many more tears were shed as we began to see pictures of the beautiful, smiling faces of those first graders whose lives were so cruelly cut short.

All of this triggers so much powerful emotion, perhaps made even more intense because it happened during the holiday season. One of my early thoughts was of the Christmas presents that may already have been wrapped and under the tree, now never to be opened. The holidays are so focused on and enriched by the joy that children bring to them — what happens when that child or that parent is so suddenly torn away?

Over the days and weeks to come, we will hear experts talking about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and I imagine that we will continue to get information and speculation about the psychological history and mindset of the shooter. That information will be important and potentially helpful for all of those touched by this tragedy, and may help us to understand what could possibly have led to this. But right now, I’m mostly thinking about how all those people in Connecticut can get out of bed each morning and put one foot in front of the other. I’m thinking of the gaping hole that has been left in the lives of parents, siblings, children, students, coworkers, friends and the entire community of Newtown. Our nation has witnessed too many of these events, but this one feels different because of the innocence of the defenseless victims. The “why” that we ask over and over has no answer, so our inherent urge to make sense of the senseless is stymied.

I grew up in a small New England town not terribly unlike Newtown, so I know how the bonds of community can support those devastated. The sorrow in response to a crisis like this is so powerful that it can feel overwhelming. We want to flee from it, almost deny that it really happened because it’s just too painful. But as I often say to the patients I work with, the only way to “get over” an emotion is to go through it — there’s no real shortcut. To be able to sit with that sorrow, feel it in our hearts, our bodies, our minds — that is the first step toward healing.

The people who lost children in Connecticut did not just lose that 6- or 7-year-old. They lost a lifetime with their child — graduations and weddings and summer vacations and, for their siblings, the lifelong relationship with that brother or sister.

One of my favorite poems opens with these lines:

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.

The families in Connecticut have felt their futures dissolve in that moment. They now look out on that desolate landscape, but I’m optimistic that their incalculable sorrow will be met with kindness. With the kindness of family members, friends, their neighbors. With the kindness of strangers near and far, who are holding that sorrow in their own hearts and praying for them during this worst possible time in their lives. Whether we have children of our own or not, we can imagine the devastating impact of this event, and we cannot help but feel compassion for all who have lost a loved one. The community of Newtown will grieve together and, I imagine, over time will begin to heal together. But first, there’s an enormous sorrow to sit with. And kindness for the rest of us to bring to that sorrow.

Let me close here with the last two stanzas of Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem Kindness, and the message of hope that it offers.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.