As a bereaved mother who mourned and still mourns the loss of her three year old son, Michael, in 1994, I cringed when I heard former Governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, in reference to the families of the victims of the terrible shooting in Tucson, say offhandly, “May God turn their mourning into joy.”
In my view, such ostensibly nice little sentiments, which seem so commonly held in this religious country, show a complete misunderstanding and even a kind of contempt for both mourning AND joy, and maybe even for God too.
Let’s leave politics aside for the moment, along with my personal feelings about Sarah Palin. I’m sure (I hope) Ms. Palin meant those words to be comforting to the suffering families, the poor parents of little Christina Green, the parents of Gabe Zimmerman, the three sons and wife of Judge John Roll, and families of Dorothy Murray, Phyllis Schenk, Dorwan Stoddard, not to mention the children and husband of Representative Gabrielle Giffords, and the other injured people.
Yet such apparently harmless sentiments, much like that deeply offensive and overused word “closure,” are a misguided attempt to shrink-wrap and even deny the enormity of losses like this. They imply that grief is an event rather than a lifelong psychological process in which you gradually figure out a way to incorporate your losses into your life and move on from there. There actually is something to be gained from loss, but knowledge of what it is only comes from long suffering and deep searching.
Yes, Ms. Palin is no doubt relating her own and many others’ understanding of God’s goodness, or perhaps talking about joy that one’s loved one is now in Heaven. But consider the implication of the statement. When you’re in pain over the loss of a child, you might hope or even pray that God will take away your pain. But turn it into joy? What God would want to deny the enormity of your loss and the meaning of the life you lost by taking away your authentic emotions and feelings that your loss is real and important, and replacing them with an inauthentic happiness?
Just like those old standby cliches, “Time will heal,” “It’s time to get on with your life,” and “God must have wanted another angel,” such comments as Palin’s have a kind of delegitimizing effect on the griever. They imply that there is something he or she can do that will end or take away grief. They suggest that the pain you are feeling isn’t what you should be feeling and if you would just take this advice you wouldn’t be feeling it. This is the opposite of what the person who attempts to comfort the bereaved should do. My favorite definition of compassion is a Buddhist one: Compassion is willingness to be close to suffering. This doesn’t means denying, deflecting or babbling your way through it, but sitting with it, no matter how uncomfortable intense emotion makes you feel. And this means:
Be present. Be humble. Observe. Reflect. Allow silence. Don’t judge. Accept. Listen.
After seventeen years, my grief is no longer a hissing monster, it’s quiet now. I have found the way to move on and learned the lessons my life has offered. But the idea that I would ever, even now, experience joy in connection with my loss is offensive. While that sort of “feel good immediately” sentiment is consistent with the increasingly short attention American span, and might even be popular in this country (at least among those who haven’t suffered major losses), Palin’s words aren’t; in my view they’re an insult to me, my son, my family, and to all those suffering families in Tucson.
Turn mourning into joy? Do we really want God to transform us into smiling Disney characters?