Coping with Tragedy
Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI
Originally Published on ronrolheiser.com
Several years ago, late on a Sunday night, I received an email from one of my nephews. Three of his close friends had just been killed in a senseless automobile accident. He was beside himself with grief, and with questions: “Why?” “What does one say in a situation like this?” “What do you say to their families?”
I’m old enough to know that there are no simple answers to those questions at a time like this. Those questions are hard enough to answer when the person who has just died has lived a long, full life and has died with loved ones holding his or her hand and giving permission to let go and move on. They are paralyzing in the face of this kind of tragedy, a senseless accident where someone’s carelessness takes three young people out of this world in a totally unnecessary fashion.
So what does one say in the face of this?
Initially, for the first days after a tragedy of this kind, there is almost nothing we can say that is helpful. We have the words we need, drawn from our faith: “They are with God!” “We believe in the resurrection!” “They are in gentler hands than ours!” “They are still alive in another place!” “We will meet them again some day!” Those words eventually will bring the consolation they contain, but in the first hours and days after a tragedy they don’t carry their full power or sometimes much power at all; not because they aren’t true, but because, like a seed, they need time to take root and grow.
But, because our words are inadequate, doesn’t mean that there is nothing we can do. What’s needed more than our words is our presence, our sharing in the helplessness, and our sharing in the waiting. In the first hours and days that follow a tragedy we don’t need to speak a lot, we need to touch a lot. We simply need to be there.
Moreover the words that we do speak need to honor how deep and resistant to consolation the wound is. They should not be an untimely balm, good medicine but bad timing. They must speak honestly to the senselessness of the situation and how disconsolate it leaves us. I like the words that Rainer Marie Rilke sent to a friend who was beside himself with grief: “Give that heaviness back to the earth; the seas are heavy, the mountains are heavy, the earth is heavy.”
When we are in the middle of a storm we shouldn’t pretend that the sun is shining or, indeed, that there is anything we can do to stop the storm. The task is to wait it out, together, hand in hand, offering each the assurance that we aren’t alone.
Waiting it out is precisely what is required. The Book of Lamentations tells us that there are times and seasons when all you can do is “put your mouth to the dust and wait.” That’s bitter, stoic advice, but it imparts real hope rather than false optimism. What it tells us and draws us to is the fact that, right now, for this immediate time, this pain must be borne, however crushing. There is nothing to be done. Consolation will come eventually, but it must be waited for and, in the meantime, we need to keep “vigil”. And that is why we call the service before funeral a “vigil”. We gather not just to celebrate the deceased life, but to, together, “put our mouths to the dust and wait.”
And that waiting can be very painful, a time when we see everything through the dark prism of our loss and where for awhile we sincerely believe that we will never find joy again. This kind of waiting brings to the surface a frightening kind of loneliness that reveals to us how fragile and vulnerable it all is.
But that is exactly what we need to accept and process. And so we shouldn’t be afraid to feel afraid, nor despair about feeling despair. Neither negates courage or faith. As Kierkegaard put it, “courage isn’t the absence of despair and fear but the capacity to move ahead in spite of them.”
We believe in life after death, in the resurrection, in the communion of saints, and in God’s infinite tenderness and mercy. Faith can be trusted. What it tells us is true. In the end there is consolation. However our God, it would seem, doesn’t always save us from tragedy, but instead eventually redeems tragedy. Jesus didn’t save his friend Lazarus from death, he raised him up from death after he had died. In the end, no doubt, “all will be well, and all will be well, and every manner of being will be well”, but in the meantime, especially in those moments right after tragedy, senseless accidents, senseless deaths, and senseless loss of all kinds, the consolation and peace of God have to be waited for and we are meant to do that, hand in hand.