Often, when tragedy strikes, we feel singled out. As if we are the only ones who are suffering. Our culture tends to create an exclusion zone around people who are grieving, or who have been horribly wounded in some way. This only adds to the wounding and makes grief recovery even more difficult.
Reading the comments section in David Brooks’ essay “The Art of Presence,” I’m struck by the compassion and wisdom of countless people who have dealt with trauma in their lives. His essay was the most e-mailed the day it appeared in the New York Times. Clearly, people need and want information about how to heal.
Brooks is actually reflecting on a blog post originally published by Catherine Woodiwiss in the Sojourner, a blog about the intersection between religion, spirituality, politics, and social justice. The Woodiwiss family has endured severe blows over the last five years but somehow emerged to inspire others with their resilience.
In 2008, Anna Woodiwiss, then 27, was working for a service organization in Afghanistan. On April 1, she went horseback riding and was thrown, dying from her injuries. When I read about this in Brooks’ column, chills went up my spine. My eldest daughter Maya also died of severe brain injury after a fall from a horse, and her accident took place on April 2 of 1992. The parallels are eerie.
In 2013, the Woodiwiss’s younger daughter Catherine, then 26, was biking to work from her home in Washington. She was hit by a car. Catherine’s face was severely injured. She continues to face a series of operations. For a time, she breathed and ate through a tube, unable to speak. Her recovery is slow.
To have two of your children suffer life threatening injuries would test the souls of the hardiest parents. Yet, after interviewing these parents, Brooks reports their remarkably honest and compassionate response to grief. Catherine Woodiwiss has gifted us with ten things she learned from trauma, and I highly recommend her level headed wisdom.
What Brooks picked up on in Catherine’s post is the vital importance of not trying to “fix” grief in ourselves or others. Each person’s grief is unique and needs to be respected. What grieving people need are reliable companions to accompany them on the journey.
As Brooks puts it, “We have a tendency, especially in an achievement-oriented culture, to want to solve problems and repair brokenness — to propose, plan, fix, interpret, explain and solve. But what seems to be needed here is the art of presence — to perform tasks without trying to control or alter the elemental situation. Allow nature to take its course. Grant the sufferers the dignity of their own process. Let them define meaning. Sit simply through moments of pain and uncomfortable darkness. Be practical, mundane, simple and direct.”
To “sit simply through moments of pain and uncomfortable darkness” will make Buddhas of us all. But that is the task.
As a culture, we need to listen to survivors like Catherine and her parents. They don’t ask for special treatment. Rather, they seek quiet compassion without judgment or advice, even from well-meaning friends and loved ones. Those of us who have survived the loss of a child have a special duty to share what we’ve learned, to bring back whatever wisdom we’ve gleaned, and share the kindness we’ve received.
The grief journey can be long. It can bring us to our knees. The trick is learning how to get up and move on without forgetting, minimizing, or claiming victory. Once grief’s lightning strikes, we are forever changed. But that can be a very good thing if we have the fortitude and patience to trust our own process.
Kudos to Brooks and Woodiwiss for so eloquently sharing the news.