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Volume 27, Issue 3

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When Tragedy Hits

Written by  Vali Hawkins Mitchell, PhD, LMHC, REAT January 15, 2013

When tragedy hits, we want the world to stop.

But even the most senseless tragedy does not stop the world. Not for you. Not for me. Not for a bereaved community in Connecticut, where schoolchildren were slaughtered in their classrooms.

No, it doesn’t stop. I know this as a fact.

When a police officer knocked on my door one midnight to inform me of the death of my young daughter, my world stopped. But the next day, one of my dear friends had a medical crisis, and I needed to step up to support her family. And the next week, my favorite restaurant across from my condo had a fire, and I needed to run across the street to help friends out of harm’s way.

Crisis didn’t stop in the middle of my wrenching grief. And, though time has passed, my grief hasn’t ended. It has changed. Somewhere in my anguish, I knew that I had two choices: 1) to pack up a U-Haul and move my furniture into the tomb of my pain, or 2) to make it matter. To make it matter, I have to stand up to it every day. I have to re-evaluate my faith every day.  I have to stand up and suit up and show up every day.  I visit the grief constantly, but I do not reside in it. I can’t. It would end me.  And so I make it a proactive choice to do my best to teach this to others in the face of their most heinous moments because, any moment now, a next disaster will arrive somewhere. I hope it won’t be yours.  

To make a heinous disaster meaningful is dreadfully hard work forever because it doesn’t fix the grief.  What it does is transmute the energy of sorrow into something more valuable than the pain -- hope.  But it isn’t easy to get there. It is a marathon, not a sprint.

When the next tragedy happens, we re-grieve all our previous losses. We join in the collective of our own sorrows and those of others. And there will be, unfortunately, another event just around the corner. It is sadly inevitable. So I encourage you to prepare your hearts.  Prepare them not by closing them, but by opening them more.  It isn’t easy work. But the only other option is to crawl into the tomb with your losses, and then there is no hope left.

I wish I didn’t belong to the “special” club of parents who have lost children – that club in which 20 families in Connecticut now find themselves unwilling members. And I can’t forget that my Mom died three weeks after my daughter -- not a good year for me! Not an easy club to belong to. But I do. I remember sitting across the table from parents who had lost a loved one in the World Trade Center attacks in 2001, people who cried out to me, “You don’t know what I’m feeling!”  I had to say, “Yes, I do. And would you like to know what I have done to survive?” Some did want to know.  Others were already ordering up their U-Hauls to move in with the pain.  I don’t blame them.  That tomb looks pretty inviting sometimes.  But if we go there, the “bad-guys” win. And I refuse!

Suit up and show up. That’s all we can do for each other.  It won’t feel like enough. My heart is re-broken after the school massacre last Friday. And nothing I can say will help, except to repeat: I know.  I know.  

And I will stand up again today to try to make the day worthy of my survival.