Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Evolution of Public Grieving - Remembering Sandy Hook and Raising our Emotional I.Q.

This post has been stirring around in my heart and head for several weeks now.  This morning, on the anniversary of the Sandy Hook School tragedy, it seems to be an appropriate time to share my thoughts.

While no one can possibly know what it's like to lose a child, especially a young child, unless you've experienced it yourself, the horrible school shooting tragedy one year ago today has brought a glimpse at what the grief of a bereaved parent is like.  The parents of those Sandy Hook children have shown remarkable presence of heart and mind in their desire to honor their children.  Many have spoken out against gun violence.  They've created playgrounds in honor of their children both to heal, focus on the positive and good and to raise awareness. They've given interviews and written books.  They've shed tears and bared their souls so that others might know their pain.  They have planned memorials on this anniversary of the death of their children that are meaningful and beautiful to them privately and perhaps also publicly or as a community, and they've asked the media to stay away. Astonishingly and thankfully, many major media outlets are honoring their request.  I can't tell you how important that is to them and what an important message it sends.  Grief is not a show.  It is reality and it is not for T.V.  Every media outlet that chooses not to honor their request loses any respect I might have had for them.

Grief is a journey.  It's different for everyone.  There is no right or wrong way.  For most of us who have lost a child, even to a tragedy that is covered by the media, any spotlight is brief.  We are left to grieve on our own, in peace, in our own way.  We needn't share it publicly.  While there is much to learn about grief and how people feel and what helps and does not help them, it doesn't need to be broadcast on the news. We don't have satellite trucks on our street and cameras in our faces as we go through the rituals of remembrance.  We can honor our children when and how we want and no one is the wiser.  The families of great tragedies deserve the same privacy and respect.

For the families of Sandy Hook, they had the media in their faces for weeks.  It touched us as a nation. Because they were children.  Because it was so close to the holidays.  Because there were so many so violently killed.  Please don't forget those teachers were someone's child, too.  Their parents are hurting just as much as the parents of the young children. A parents pain is not lessened by the age of the child or the circumstances of their death.  The anniversary is difficult enough for them without the added trigger of the media returning.

What they are doing is grieving both privately and together.  The community is healing in the only way they know how.  Alone and together.  One day at a time.  Anniversary days, especially the first, are the worst and the most difficult to endure.  There are ceremonies and vigils in their community.  There are ones of support across the nation as well.  There will be an Angel of Hope statue dedicated tonight in honor of the children.  I have tears in my eyes just thinking of how emotional and yet healing it will be for these families to have that Angel in their community.  Because I know what they are going through.

We, as a nation, have grieved along with them.  Using the impact of the tragedies that have occurred across our nation to drive us to be better people.  To empathize.  To be compassionate.  To help others in need. To be kind to one another.  To think about the unthinkable and God willing, do something about preventing it from happening to someone you love.  Whether it's gun violence, abduction, bombings, accidents or falling furniture or TV, awareness and action lead to prevention and prevention is the only thing that will save lives.

Tragedies like this one and others in recent history, along with the advent of social media, has changed the way we as a nation learn about grief.  What used to be a vast unknown and something that was private and not talked about is becoming more mainstream.  This is a good thing. We need to become more comfortable with death and the rituals around it. We need to learn how to support someone who is grieving, not shy away from them.  The media coverage of tragedies of any kind, but especially those involving children is bringing an awareness to the public about how families cope when a loved one is lost, especially a child.  It's making us realize we are not immune and perhaps catalyzing our own confrontation with mortality.

We saw (if you chose to watch the media coverage one year ago, which I mostly did not) the panic and pain on those parents faces when they flocked to the school to find out if their child was one of the victims.  We heard stories of amazing heroism.  We heard awful, awful stories of what that day was like.  We saw the coverage of the funerals and the raw pain of the parents who granted media interviews in those first few weeks after the tragedy.  We saw parents cry and be angry and broken because they would never, ever see or hold their child again.  Unless you are close to someone, these are things most people never see and never know. It raised our collective grief I.Q.  It pulled at our heartstrings.  It made us realize it could have just as easily been our child's school and our child.  It compelled many to action to prevent it from happening at their schools and to their children.

Over the past year we've seen stories of hope and honor as the parents and the community have found ways to honor their children, raise awareness and begin to heal.  We've learned how some are moved to advocacy and some just can't publicly grieve.  Everyone moves at their own pace.  There is no right way.  Only your way.  They are all doing it the only way they know how.  Knowing they have the love and support of an entire nation on their side is surely helping them through this most difficult of days.

There are many opportunities for public or shared grieving.  Especially this time of year.  Especially for bereaved parents.  December 6th every year there are ceremonies at all of the Angel of Hope statues around the world to honor children who have died.  You can visit the angels anytime.  They are beautiful, inspiring and healing.  There are local vigils and remembrance ceremonies or special religious ceremonies, especially in towns where tragedies like the Sandy Hook tragedy occurred.

The Compassionate Friends is probably the biggest and farthest reaching resource and source of support for bereaved parents. Each year they have a worldwide remembrance ceremony/ritual for bereaved parents.  It's always the second Sunday of December and it's called the Worldwide Candle Lighting.  Many local chapters of the Compassionate Friends have ceremonies.  I have attended a local one 7 of the past 8 years. Meghan's 9th Angelversary is in just 5 days.  This year I had an experience with the candle lighting that surprised me on a few levels.  At times, I wondered where the compassion was among the 'friends'.  This is a glimpse into one parent's integration of grief and love and what might be going through the mind of a bereaved parent at one of these events.

The ceremony I attend includes several ritualistic segments.  Many find comfort in ritual, especially in grief. The evening begins with saying your child's name and lighting a tea light, then hanging an ornament on the remembrance tree.  It is an emotional and pivotal moment for many parents and often moves them and those listening to tears. We collectively feel their pain and honor their child and their life and death.  Dinner is then served and those in attendance share stories of their spirit children with their table mates.  They share memories and often, tears.  After dinner, parents are invited to share a poem, story or memory of their child. They are often heartfelt and tearful and while they may not resonate with everyone, it's clear it resonates with the person who is speaking, and that is all that matters.  You feel for them, because you know how much they are hurting.  I've never spoken in years past, although I've been asked to many times.

I wrote a blog post in early December last year about the two events I attend every year on that day.  You can read it here: A Mother's Love.  There is both a ballroom dance gala and the candle lighting ceremony and they always fall on the same day and overlap.  Both are important to us and so we find a way to attend both. I wrote then, that perhaps this year, instead of sharing a story or memory or poem verbally, I could express my love through a dance.  The organizer of the candle lighting event at that time strongly encouraged me to do so and again this fall, as they began to plan the event.  I enlisted the help of our dance instructor and we began to choreograph a tribute.  She is amazing and together, with my husband, who never parented Meggie while she was alive, we created a beautiful expression of emotion.

There were new leaders of the local chapter of the Compassionate Friends.  They voted and agreed to let me do the dance.  While I understand my request was out of the ordinary, I was surprised it required a vote. No one votes on who gets to share a poem or memory.  No one knows what they are going to say or how long they are going to speak when they decide to walk up to that podium, sometimes on the spur of the moment.  Why did they need to vote on a 3 minute dance?  In theory, I could have just walked up to that dance floor and started dancing, unannounced.  Still, I understood the need for process and that there were new leaders who might have wanted to run the evening differently.  We still worked on the dance assuming it would happen because it takes a long time to choreograph a dance like that.

Several weeks went by.  Several emails to the new co-leaders from me asking if the dance would be a 'go' or not.  Finally a response that they voted yes.  I thanked them.  I told them the song we chose and why and about how long the dance would be.  Then another email.  Could I change the song?  They thought it was 'inappropriate' and some of the parents or siblings might find it offensive.  My initial thought to myself was, "Seriously?  Are you judging my grief, my loss and my expression of love?  Are you making decisions for people you don't even know or are you projecting your own feelings about the song into our interpretation of the dance?"  Of course I did not say that to them. :-)

The song was "My Heart Will go On" by Celine Dion.  They felt it was a love song between a man and a woman and about the Titanic, not about the loss of a child.  I thought to myself, how narrow minded for a fellow bereaved parent!  Instead, I responded, explaining while that may be true in the context of the movie, I never thought of the song as anything but a love song.  It's about love and loss and how that love goes on and on and on.  How we hold our loved ones in our heart.  For me, it's about the love between a mother and her daughter.  It speaks to the connection that persists through space and time, in body and in spirit.  It's about MY love for MY daughter and in fact the love between any parent and the child they have lost.  Sure, it could apply to a man and a woman, but that's not how I was interpreting it.  In a room full of bereaved parents, surely they'd know I was dancing for my child not for some man!  I explained it was too late to change songs as the dance took many weeks to choreograph, and the song was chosen because it was meaningful to me and I could not change it.  If they didn't accept the song, I understood, but we would not be able to dance.

Several more weeks went by and I had to inquire again, to find out if it was approved.  It was.  Everyone thought someone else told me and no one actually did.  Frustrating, but I understood.  They are new leaders and new to organizing this event.  They were probably a bit overwhelmed.  They are bereaved parents, too and they have no idea who I am or who Meghan was.  Nor did they ask!  For a group so focused on the importance of saying their names, this was a bit off-putting.  I get it.  Change is hard.  There is a business aspect to this event.  However it's about our children.

They knew we'd be arriving at the tail end of dinner.  I had mentioned in my email I was looking forward to meeting them both.  When we walked in (and it should have been somewhat obvious it was us since I was wearing a long pink gown) we stood and looked around.  It seemed like an eternity.  No one greeted us. People were eating.  I scanned the room but didn't see anyone I recognized.  Finally, the former President of the local chapter of the CF, who knew us from previous years, came to us an hugged me.  She welcomed us.  She asked me to place Meg's picture on the table and light her candle and then place her angel ornament on the remembrance tree, but unlike in years past, I was not invited to say her name into the microphone first.  Many were oblivious to the fact I was even there.  It felt different without the ritual of saying her name out loud.  As if she was somehow less important than the others.  While I know that is not true, it felt that way. That surprised me.

While I understand I missed that part of the evening, this was the first year anyone (I was not the only one) who came late was not invited to do so.  I was OK with it, but I thought it a bit... disrespectful.  As if Meggie (or we) were just not as important or worthy just because we were late.  My child's name deserved to be heard just like any others. Her life and loss deserved to be acknowledged even for just a minute. She existed.  I think of her every day and feel the pain of her absence in my life every day.  In fact, there were children honored in the program whose parents were not even there.  Luckily, I *get* it.  In fact at the end of the evening many of the parents who knew me (or who remembered her picture) from previous years made a point of coming to me and telling me they remember her story, her beautiful face and think of her every year.  THAT means the world to me. After we sat, a few other friends from previous years noticed us and came to say hello, including the past organizer, the one who encouraged us to do our dance.

After those who wished to speak or read a poem were finished, we were invited to dance.  The room was silent.  As we began, I got lost in the emotion.  I was dancing for and with Meghan, but also for the other children and for their parents.  It was about our collective love for our children and how our connection to them goes on.  The song was edited (it's a long song!) and the dance was completely choreographed. Thankfully, my husband is a strong leader because I was oblivious to everything and at one point, completely lost my place in the dance and had no idea what my feet were supposed to do.  He got me back on track. Mistakes were made but no one but us knew. We finished.  Several people applauded and stood.  Some were crying.  Most had rather blank expressions but were gracious and moved.  I was fighting tears myself.

It was no where near technically our best.  We had performed it much better in practice. The dance is a Bolero and we literally learned many of the steps as we learned the choreography.  It was about 6 weeks from start to finish.  My posture was awful because I was grieving and lost in emotion and not at all thinking dance frame.  The quality of the video is fair at best but partially because of the lighting and partially because the person recording needed to be in a place where she was unobtrusive and respectful and given the set up of the room, that was difficult.  Unfortunately, I am unable to upload it here for some reason at this time. Every time we practiced it at the dance studio, those who watched, cried.  Even if they didn't understand why we were dancing or for whom. They felt the emotion, the pain and the love.

The reality is I needed to do that dance.  Whether I ever did it at this event or for any 'audience' didn't matter.  I did it for me.  I did it for Meggie.  I did it for love.  It had to come out of me and I'm so glad it did...It was so healing. It was an honor to do it and to dance for all the children and their parents.  It was so much about all of us at that moment.

It was interesting that in a room of fellow bereaved parents, who you would think could identify with the emotion because of their own loss, so many were emotionless.  Not just during our dance, but throughout the evening.  I wonder if it has anything to do with the fact Meggie was so young when she died or the fact I am so vocal and public about my experience with her loss and have integrated it into my life so completely.  I'd think not, but I don't know any different and I guess, neither do they. 

Most of the other parents had lost teenagers or adult children.  Meg was only 3. Some were lost to accidents and some to illness. The gentleman we sat with had lost his 51 year old daughter just a year earlier. He was clearly still devastated and was tearful much of the evening.  The energy in that room was one of intense pain and sadness.  There was a tension in the air that was like walking on a tightrope.  Everyone was at a different stage of grieving.  Some with very new losses, others that were literally 10 or 20 years ago.  Time matters not at all when it comes to the death of your child.  

There was also love, but it was not the prevailing energy for most people, at least that I could sense.  It was more of an undercurrent with the pain of the loss winning out over the pure love for their child.  This sort of event brings that to the surface.  I certainly felt it, too.  Of course as I said to them all when I did speak, it wouldn't hurt so much if we didn't love them so much.  Perhaps the low and flat energy was a self-protective reaction or their own way of processing both their own grief and that of others around them or inability to do so. They were walled off and protecting themselves from feeling and expressing emotion, perhaps because of fear or maybe their pain was just too raw. Perhaps it was because they hated the dance or the song and were offended by it.  I don't know.  I'll never know.  I don't judge them.  I hope they didn't judge us.

Then, I spoke.  I thanked the CF for allowing us to dance.  I explained the inspiration for the dance, the meaning behind the song and the words to me, how I danced it not only for Meggie and I, but for all of their children and all of them.  I explained that it's important to acknowledge that all of us express our grief and our love differently and that there is no right or wrong way.  I explained how the lift was a nod to Meggie and her constant desire to 'fly in the sky'.  How, for that moment, I was flying with her.  That's where I lost it emotionally, by the way.

Shortly afterwards, it was time to light our candles for the 7 pm wave of light.  A song was played, but it was not the same song played the past 8 years.  This may have simply been an error in choosing the track on the CD or it may have been intentional. It was lovely, but not nearly as deeply moving, at least to me. Usually you hear lots of sniffles and sobs around the room.  Not so this year.  We put out our candles and then everyone said their goodbye's.  Several people came up to me and thanked us for dancing.  Several said they felt we expressed beautifully how they felt, that we were dancing for their child, too.  Both the former organizer of the event and the former President of the CF (who really seemed to run the entire evening rather than the new co-Presidents) came to us and thanked us for sharing our love through dance.  They thanked us for what I said afterwards.  They hugged us and we chatted about our children a bit before we wished each other a peaceful holiday and went our separate ways.

I think the most astonishing thing about the entire evening to me was the fact that neither of the new co-Presidents introduced themselves to me.  Especially after all the correspondence we shared. They didn't thank us.  They didn't comment about Meghan (as so many other do, her face is quite memorable), our dance or the words I said.  They didn't say anything directly to us! I did not know who they were (and still don't although I'm pretty sure I interacted with at least one of them without knowing who she was) so it was really their place to come to me, at least so I thought.  This was very off-putting to me. There was no follow up e-mail either.  Not that there had to be, but some sort of acknowledgement would have been nice and respectful.  I am curious what they thought of it. They call themselves the leaders of the Compassionate Friends.  I felt no compassion from them.  I hold no judgement, but it hurt.  I know change is hard.  It is what it is. They, of all people, should *get* it!  Don't you think?

Like the parents in Sandy Hook, all we want is for our children to be remembered.  For our pain to be honored, respected and acknowledged.   We all will grieve differently.  There is no right or wrong.  While we may disagree with someone else's way of expressing their pain or love, we have no right to judge.  We should simply hold they and their children in love and light.  Say their names.  Thank them for sharing a bit of their child, their memories, their love and even their pain with us. It helps us grow.  It makes us better people. It raises our emotional and grief I.Q.  It brings them a small sliver of peace.

The families of the children lost one year ago today have asked that in honor of the children you commit a random act of kindness today.  Why stop there?  Someone loses a child every day.  Let's all be kind to one another.  Love.  Respect.  Honor.  Most importantly, don't judge.  Just have compassion and love.


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