Like most men, I am incapable of providing comfort to someone who hopes to find a patient ear for their grief.
My default response is to provide a remedy. To pick them up, brush off their dust, wipe their tears, pat them on the back and spur them forward. It’s instinctive. Honed during hundreds of thousands of years during our life as hunters, it is an inherent male trait. Just imagine where our species would be had we sat by one of our fallen comrades to listen to their hurt. There was no time for that. The survival of those back at camp depended on our stoic courage. We had to get on with the hunt or else.
So when asked to lend a patient ear, I itch to offer solutions, and for that lifesaving instinct, men are often called tone-deaf, callous, and insensitive.
My shoulder is not to cry on. Do not look at me for relief. Come to me only if you wish to regain your footing and find a way out of your misery.
“Your bodily soul wants comforting,
The severe father wants spiritual clarity.
He scolds, but eventually leads you to the open.
Trust your wound to a teacher’s surgery.
Flies collect on a wound. They cover it;
those flies of your self-protecting feelings,
your love for what you think is yours.
Let a teacher wave away the flies
and put a plaster on the wound.
Don’t turn your head. Keep looking
at the bandaged place.
That’s where the light enters you.”
— Spiritual Master Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī
My approach to grief, however, is conflicted. On the one hand, I know it’s essential to avoid getting stuck in melancholy, but I also often find its source in humanity’s deluded insistence on permanence. Of wanting things never to change. For loved ones to be immortal, comforts eternal, hardship nonexistent, suffering but something which should only afflict others.
We live in a contingent universe. Death and loss are part of the bargain. Reject those and you will be denied life’s blessings. Run away from the pain and you’ll remain in pain. Better confront it, speak to it, listen to it, and you will soon hear its call to a path of greater purpose. If a period of mourning serves for little else than to wallow in self-pity, the ‘gift of the wound’ will be squandered and the light Rumi talks about will never enter.
I’m not suggesting one can or should overcome a loss but to transmute it into a lavish bestowal of blessings. Of using our pain to heal others. To honor our losses by using them as fertile soil for regenerative deeds.
“Perhaps the deepest measure of our character, of our very humanity, says writer Maria Popova, “is how much we go on giving when what we most value is taken from us — when a loved one withholds their love, when the world withdraws its mercy.”
On the morning of December 14, 2012, the world withdrew its mercy from the lives of Jessica Lewis and her six year-old son Jesse who was slain that day along with 19 of his classmates at Sandy Hook Elementary.
Talk about unspeakable grief.
Despite my previous stern and stoic assertions, I’m not so sure I could pick myself up should I lose one my daughters. I do, however, find inspiration in what Jesse’s mother decided to do with her anguish.
In one of the most heart-wrenching videos I have ever watched, Jessica says that when she went back home to get Jesse’s clothes for the funeral, she walked through the kitchen on her way out and noticed three words Jesse had written on the kitchen chalkboard shortly before he died:
“NURTURING — HEALING — LOVE.”
That was Jessica’s calling.
“These words were a message of comfort for his family and friends and an inspiration for the world,” Jessica says. “And I knew I’d be spending the rest of my life spreading this message.” Today, the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement is spreading its healing love across the entire country and the world.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”
These are the words of Viktor Frankl, who, in 1942, was interned in a Nazi concentration camp along with his wife, parents, and other family members. He spent three years in four camps, including Auschwitz, and was the only member of his family to survive.
Frankl surmounted the experience because he realized that there was an important task he needed to complete: a manuscript he had been working on which later became one of the most influential books of the post-war period — ‘Man’s Search for Meaning.’
Frankl believed that humans are motivated by something called a “will to meaning,” which equates to a desire to find meaning in life. He argued that life can have meaning even in the most miserable of circumstances and that the motivation for living comes from finding that meaning.
For people who think there’s nothing to live for, the question is getting [them] to realize that life is still expecting something from them. — Viktor Frankl
In 1982, African American Archie Williams received a life sentence for a crime he didn’t commit. On DNA evidence, he was released 37 years later.
Speaking of his stay at Angola State Penitentiary — classified as the bloodiest prison in the United States — Archie said he had a choice: “Either be strong, or weak, because you will be tried and tested.”
When asked how he coped, he said, “Freedom is of the mind… I went to prison, but never let my mind go to prison.”
Like Viktor Frankl, Archie had a dream for his future. He loved to sing, and he’d watch America’s Got Talent in jail imagining himself on that stage. On May 19, 2020, Archie brought the show’s audience and judges to tears and a rousing ovation while singing ‘Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.’
Unspeakable loss into world healing… horror into meaning… darkness into song; the transformational stories of Jessica Lewis, Viktor Frankl, and Archie Williams are a testament to the resilience of the human spirit once we choose to gift ourselves to the world and transmute our grief into courageous, all-embracing love.
So when in grief, let its fire burn through you, but not all the way to your soul. Just enough to ignite a white spark of inspiration you can cup in your hands and carry with you to bring spiritual clarity, hope and healing to those who await your blessings.