The President of the United States has been in the news this week because of a conversation he had with widow of a soldier who died in an ambush. I have no comment on politics or policies; I'd like to share what I've seen, heard, and experienced repeatedly.
Reason doesn't comfort.
There is no explanation, logical or not, that takes away even a tiny piece of the shattering heartbreak of death. There is no amount of reason that soothes mourning or grief. There are no words that have a magical "feel better" property.
Why do we say these things? Why do we try so hard to say the right thing and then fall flat?
We are uncomfortable being with people who are experiencing tragedies. We don't know what to do or say, so we say what feels right. We say what helps us to feel better, and that's often an explanation of why everything is "okay."
He's in a better place.
It was her time.
At least he's no longer suffering.
As many bereaved people have said, these well intended comments that explain away the pain of loss offer no comfort. None. It's hard to appreciate a better place when it's not here. It's hard to appreciate the right time when it means less time. And while the end of suffering for one is a wonderful thing, it's hard to be grateful for that while drowning in a different kind of suffering.
Could we change the language of grief? Could we change the beliefs about and understanding of it? Could we start talking about it with each other?
Grief isn't linear. It doesn't care about logic. It can't be explained away, just as death can't be explained away. It must be felt. When we say things that are more reason than heart, we deny the emotional connection that we need. More importantly, we deny the emotional connection and support the bereaved needs.
We can change the conversation, and the President just opened a door for us. People are listening, whether they support him or disparage him.
Let's do better. Let's make safe spaces to feel. Let's have difficult conversations.
Let's leave reason and logic out of this grief stuff.
We live in a sea of pictures. In the course of an average day, a social media user sees a steady stream of snapshots of vacations, the irritating guy on the bus, cute expressions babies and toddlers make, dinner, the sofa the dog destroyed, and lots of selfies. Social media and mobile devices have given us the ability to rapidly document and share every nuance of our lives with friends and family, and I admit I enjoy seeing images from people who are important to me.
How much is too much, though? At what point do we transition from images that connect to images that overwhelm?
InfoTrends forecasts that people will take 1.3 trillion digital photographs in 2017, and 87% of those will be captured with mobile devices (that's 79% for phones and 8% for tablets). In 2010 the total number of images was 0.35 trillion. Oh, and these numbers exclude professional photographers, by the way.
Photo technology has become so ubiquitous and simple that we've lost what is most precious about photography - connection. Digital files have become less valuable and more disposable because they lack connection. The Professional Photographers of America (PPA) reported that 67% of people stored their photographs only digitally. About 70% of people no longer create or maintain photo albums and more than half haven't printed a single photo in the past year.
When was the last time you printed photos or created an album to share? Of the last 100 pictures you've taken, how many of them are meaningful to you? How are your capturing the stories that go with those photographs?
We are in danger of losing this generation. We are losing our connections with our past and leaving behind very little that is archival. Digital storage is not archival - technology changes so rapidly that storage methods become outdated after a few decades and the devices that once read and stored those files are no longer available. Museums keep things in hard copy for good reason.
One of my favorite parts of visiting my grandmother is looking through her photographs. She displays many in her home and keeps even more in albums. It seems she remembers every little story associated with those photographs, and she is a tremendous resource for our family's history. I don't remember all the stories she tells, and I certainly don't tell them like she does.
I am on a mission to build bridges to history so families can cross to the other side together, any time they choose. These stories are important, and they are almost gone.
Every life makes an impact.
I am teaching this to my son. He's attended many funerals and memorial services. We talk about death frankly in ways he can process. It is my hope that he will see death as a part of life rather as something terrifying that is to be avoided at all costs. At four-years-old, he is death positive.
This summer he came running inside the house shouting that he had found a bird that needed help. I could see he had a bird cupped in his hands and together we gently hustled back outside to investigate - I surely didn't want a bird who was ill or injured to attempt to take flight in a house with animals who would have seen that as the best day ever.
We sat on the front step and he slowly opened his hands to reveal a sparrow.
"This bird needs help, Mom. What can we do?" he asked.
Oh, my sweet boy.
"This bird is dead; her body stopped working. We can't help her get better. We can say goodbye to her and thank her for the life she brought to our forest." I put my arm around him and held him tightly to me as I spoke in a whispered hush.
We arranged a small, quiet service for this lady bird. The Boy helped me to find leaves in which to wrap her tiny body.
We held her and thanked her for what she brought to our forest. We told her that while we didn't know her, we appreciated her song. We thanked her for being a part of our world.
We buried her. She has a place under a large maple tree. The Boy dug the hole himself with his boy-sized shovel. He filled the hole above her. He did it because he wanted to.
This is how we can begin to change the culture regarding death. This was a ceremony for us. It was a moment of reverence and reflection. Our focus was on caring for the body of this bird and acknowledging the beauty of her spirit.
Children can do this. While I appreciate that at four years of life experience and brain development, the permanence of death is something beyond The Boy's reach, I also know that being honest with him from the beginning feels right to me and honors him. This bird didn't "go to sleep."
For those of you who are curious, we also talked about why it's important not to pick up dead or injured animals and did a lot of washing of hands.
I see a lot of incredible moments of the human experience while being with families in love and grief. From each family I learn, and those lessons and points to ponder are what I wish to share with you here.