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Grieving Newtown: Seven Lessons in Healthy Sorrow

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This Sunday, my church, St. David's Episcopal in Austin, Texas, hosted our bishop, who began her sermon with a prayer for the people of Newtown, Connecticut. A hush fell over the congregation; women wept and crusty old men wiped away tears. During the announcement period, our rector announced that the church had set up an altar dedicated to the tragedy at which people could pray for those involved and affected--including ourselves. On my way home, I passed the Texas state capitol, flags at half-mast, and realized that the pain and suffering of Newtown has spread across the land in concentric circles, like waves in a pond after a stone is thrown.

I've been asked to write about theology and violence after every recent mass shooting, and I am sick to death of doing so, but the Newtown shootings feel different to me. I have not seen others--nor myself been--so affected by an event since 9/11, a comparison many in the media and in spiritual leadership roles have also made. So what we may need more than another recap of what Jesus and the tradition have to tell us about violence, is some fresh thinking about the aftermath of violence. A couple of years ago I wrote a book about grief and the stories we tell ourselves to try and understand loss and death, and that is the knowledge that seems most needed in response to the Newtown tragedy. How do we respond when evil explodes in destructive force against other human beings? How do we reconcile belief in a benevolent God with the tragedy and loss we know are a part of human experience? How can we grieve in ways that are spiritually and emotionally healthy?

I want to suggest seven responses to this tragedy that might encourage us to express a healthy grief.

1) Give Yourself Permission to Grieve

President Barack Obama modeled a possible response to devastating news in his words and clearly-felt emotions after the Newtown shooting. Too often in our culture, we choke down our grief as unseemly and don't allow ourselves to feel the sadness, anger, and loss that are nonetheless present. During my time as a hospital chaplain, I was amazed by how differently--and how vocally--Hispanic and African-American families grieved from Anglo families, and I remember thinking to myself how much healthier it seemed to have what all were feeling out in the open. If you have found yourself in tears since the news broke, then know this was probably part of what you needed to do to mourn the loss of these young lives and dedicated teachers--and the brokenness that we are feeling now as a nation. Grant yourself--and those around you--permission to feel, and don't feel that you have to quickly rationalize or shut down those emotions just because others might be uncomfortable with them.

2) Recognize that This Violence Doesn't Make Sense

If you can't get your head around what has happened in Newtown--or in Aurora, or in Tucson--you are not alone. How could this happen? How could someone do something like this? Why weren't laws in place or precautions or something that might have stopped the shooter from carrying out his destructive plan? Our attempts to reconstruct the crime and the suspect's psychology are all part of our desire to make sense of what is essentially senseless. A physician friend of mine asked me why young men in our society sometimes snap and do something like this. I have no answers--and too many. Early accounts about Adam Lanza, his mother, and their relationship with the school tried to make connections we now know weren't there. Why did he kill his mother? Why did he take her guns into the Sandy Hook Elementary School and fire multiple shots into the children and adults he found there? We may never know--and yet, those victims are gone, those families are bereft, and we are left in sorrowful amazement.

3) Embrace What Meanings You Can Find

Although we may not know the truth about the motives of the killer, about the inner demons that prompted this outrage, or about the last moments of many of the victims, we do know some things that might prompt a bit of comfort. Chief among them, of course, are that many students and teachers were spared through courage or luck or good advance planning for such an emergency. We can find meaning in the principal, counselor, and teachers who sacrificed themselves to try and save the children they loved. We can find meaning in a community that has come together in an outpouring of love, sorrow, and compassion--and a nation that has responded to this horror with horror, meaning we still have the capacity to be outraged by such things. Don't stretch to find meaning--but if some element of the Newtown story offers comfort, don't fail to find it.

4) Don't Give in to Bad Theology

In the wake of tragedy, people often say stupid or thoughtless things from the best motives. As a hospital chaplain, I was trained to listen, not to offer witless bromides, but I certainly heard my share of them. Bad theology doesn't satisfy--only a story of a loving God who accompanies us in sorrow will ultimately suffice. So the shooting in Newtown is not God's will; God didn't desire the death of innocents or the suffering of so many. God did not need those little children more than their parents; God has no need for anything created. God didn't need more angels in Heaven; human beings and angels are unrelated, despite our pop culture narratives. God does not "have His reasons" for these tragedies; we live in a fallen world trending toward death and decay in which broken human beings make horrific choices. Don't try to explain things for God, and don't assume that words make things better. All the talking heads on television can't fix this sorrow.

5) Let Your Pain Inspire Change

After each mass shooting, politicians promise to look more closely at the problem of gun violence in America. Since the ban on assault weapons expired years ago, no meaningful limitations on guns or magazines have been passed or even part of a national discussion. If we truly don't want things like Newtown to happen again, what are some changes that need to be made in the way we treat guns, schools, the mentally ill? Although you may not believe it in this moment, this pain will fade. Remember after 9/11 when we honestly believed the world would never be the same again? The time to act on powerfully-felt emotions is before you forget them. That doesn't mean rash reaction, of course, but frankly, this is not the first time we have thought about why these things happen and what we might do in response. It is only the most broadly painful.

6) Feed Your Soul

Marilynne Robinson's narrator John Ames says in Gilead, "There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient." At church on Sunday morning, I found myself more moved than usual reciting the Lord's Prayer, by the liturgy, by serving communion, and I noted that response in others as well. In the midst of this grief, remind yourself what allows you to feel a sense of peace. Get outdoors, if that frees your mind. Watch Tom Brady dissect an opposing defense. Listen to Mumford & Sons, or Mozart, or Tyler Swift. Hug your children; call your grandchildren. Let those you love know how happy you are that they are alive. Read the Bible: our bishop quoted Matthew 2:18 in her prayer, "A voice was heard in Ramah,/wailing and loud lamentation,/Rachel weeping for her children;/she refused to be consoled, because they are no more." We wept with Rachel, but the recognition of our sorrow in the Scriptures was also a comfort to us. In fact, there are lot of words out there that might offer us some hope. I think of Shusaku Endo's great novel Silence, about God's supposed silence in the face of great suffering, which offers many beautiful lines, among them those a suffering priest hears the voice of Jesus say: "It was to share men's pain that I carried my cross." So seek out beauty wherever you might find it. You're still alive, thanks be to God. Don't forget that.

7) Try to Forgive

The expressions of shock and sorrow I have heard in the media, on social media, in conversations, and in church have centered on the deaths of the children and their teachers. Almost no one seems to be speaking about the deaths of Adam Lanza or his mother Nancy, whose guns took her own life, the lives of others, and finally, that of her son. I understand this response, believe me; I father a five-year-old girl who would have been Adam Lanza's victim if she had been in that Sandy Hook classroom. I have no desire to mourn this killer's death. But a theological truth intervenes: every human being is beloved by God, every human death mourned by God. If we are to find peace, we may very well be called to forgive those we hate, fear, or do not understand. In fact, I fear that this countercultural and counter-intuitive action is necessary for our own peace. This summer, I remember praying for the first time for a man who has caused great harm in the lives of those I love. I did not do it because I wanted to; I did so because it seemed that to go on hating him was only hurting me. Robbie Parker lost his six-year-old daughter Emilie at Sandy Hook. Despite his loss, his own overpowering sadness, he somehow expressed sympathy for the Lanza family: "I can't imagine how hard this experience must be for you." I have seen no healthier, more beautiful, or more Christ-like expression of grief in these dark days.