The last Sunday of October, I attended a local vigil held in honor of the victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre. The sanctuary in which it was held brimmed with worshippers and neighbors from all walks of life. The majority in attendance were non-Jewish; I learned this after the Rabbi asked all of the gentiles in the synagogue to please stand. Being Jewish, I was stunned, humbled, and grateful. As the program went on, prayers and songs were sung, speeches made. Everyone seemed shocked, horrified, and deeply saddened by the shooting in Pittsburgh, as well as the hatred which fueled it.
Earlier that same day I had been informed of the vigil and asked if I planned to attend. At first, I was ambivalent about going. Honestly, I was wrestling with feelings of helplessness and futility for many days and news of this latest shooting tipped me over into a kind of self-isolating exhaustion. The bad news streaming into my consciousness felt poisonous and unrelenting. On the other hand, I also knew that not going was a choice I might regret. So I reached out to a trusted mentor and asked his opinion. His reply was swift and simple: “A sense of solidarity is reassuring. Both offering it and receiving it can lift the spirit.” He was right.
I believe we must acknowledge and wrestle with our feelings of helplessness and futility. We are all feeling weary. But we are also feeling restless and bothered. Angry. Enraged even. There is heat in these emotions and heat is useful in cauterizing wounds as well as shutting down meanness. We need authoritative voices sounding unequivocal and disciplined disapproval in the face of ignorance and hatred. I believe the antidote to psychological paralysis is hope, but not a sunshiny everything-will-be-alright-overly-optimistic hope. More like the kind of hope that is active, purposeful, realistic, respectful of complexity yet open to possibility, and, yes, fierce.
Alloy is fused to precious metals to give it strength and durability. I believe that is what we accomplished as a kind of sudden community in the sanctuary that evening. Collective grief is powerful and when we join together in our mutual concern to face it with open and tearful eyes, we can emerge feeling reassured and spiritually infused for the next part of the journey.
Last year in October, our east Rogers Park neighborhood was rocked by a shooting that took the life of a teacher. She was gunned down outside of an el-station as she stood there with her husband and friends.
We are not prepared to lose a friend and colleague in the span of a day or weekend. We are not prepared to have death come to us so suddenly, unexpectedly, assaultively. Our local neighborhoods and communities, schools, places of worship are what constitutes our known world. These places are supposed to support our viability and provide a sense of predictability; they are familiar and foundational to our well-being. So it is that we are broadsided by the news of sudden, violent, and senseless death. And it is as if for a moment, time stands still, as we take in the information that a family member, friend, colleague, has died. This truly is a time of sudden anguish; it is a time of grief.
In the aftermath of the violence, our community determined to immediately come together to honor the life of the fallen teacher. The Center for Grief Recovery provided support by organizing psychological first aid for the administration, students, parents, and teachers. We supported their instinct to put a halt to ordinary activities and business as usual and to sit in grief circles to share, listen to, and begin processing reactions to their sudden loss.
We worked together to plan a mourning ritual for all the members of the school. While grief is a universal reaction to separation and loss, it is experienced by each individual extremely personally. Therefore, individual as well as group needs are essential. Often, as was the case here, the elders of the community must be leaned upon to provide leadership. Our staff were utilized as consultants to help process, prepare, and facilitate. We all agreed the ceremony needed to reflect the values of the specific school culture and be structured but flexible.
In the end, the school held one of the most beautiful healing memorial ceremonies I have ever witnessed. It was executed with exquisite sensitivity, insight, common purpose, strength, empathy, and grace.
I will never forget the power and sacredness of that grief work. I believe the school—its students, families, and faculty—came away from the experience wounded and vulnerable, but beginning to recover and heal through sharing their emotions, working together, remembering their beloved friend, and supporting each other to continue their unique mission.
When the amalgam that is alloy fuses with precious metal it results in durability. Without it, gold, for example, is too soft to be forged into a wearable ring. Like gold, human life is precious and should be guarded, protected, cherished. However, I believe we need more alloy in our hearts and minds. It is not a time for too much softness. Resoluteness is needed to fuel positive activism, which in turn should result in implementing more rational gun laws. Our leaders should be held accountable for their voting records on all issues, especially what they’ve said and done to help prevent senseless deaths, such as those I’ve sited here, due to violence and hate crimes. Finally, we must continue to be active in consciously confronting our feelings of helplessness and futility. When we unite in our diversity to recover from and harness our natural grief reactions to loss, we can reassure and uplift our spirits for the serious, purposeful, crucial, and hopeful work ahead.
by David Fireman, LCSW