The Mourning After

Jewish Light Editorial

There are multiple reasons we mourn together, both in Judaism and beyond.

We do so to respect the deceased, to comfort the family, to allow ourselves the opportunity to put the needs of others before our own needs, to create space and time to heal before returning to the normal activities of the living. And of course, in the Jewish context, to recognize and respect our law and custom.

So often on the heels of a mass tragedy such as what happened in Orlando last weekend, we do not afford ourselves the same rules. We launch into the blame game, wag fingers, and engage in public rhetoric that inevitably becomes ugly and sullies the mourning process.

We’ve been guilty of it ourselves plenty of times in the past. What starts as well-intentioned efforts to suggest the root causes of the massacre devolves into just another opportunity for endless opinions. Pretty soon, the story looks just like any other story. Looking back, we acknowledge our own complicity in this cycle.

But the results of that process are woefully predictable. Those who are morally indignant about the reasons for the killings retreat to their respective corners, and the hope for constructive engagement breaks down, reduced to yet another political quagmire about guns, radical religion, mental health and what have you.

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It’s not that there’s good faith lacking among the various advocates. Not at all. But there is a barrier to the types of cooperation and collaboration that are so necessary to accomplish the twin goals of combatting hate and promoting love and respect.

That barrier is our failure to mourn together. We don’t provide ourselves the opportunity to come together before we once again divide.

The nationally syndicated Washington Post columnist and childhood St. Louisan Michael Gerson addressed this very point in an excellent piece this week that transcended political views and focused on our needs for connection on the heels of loss.

Commenting that one alternative to the cacophony following a major tragedy is silence, Gerson eschews this result in favor of the connective power of words: “I hope we do not give up on language so easily. The Orlando slaughter caught — in a horrible lightning flash of violence — the human reality of death and loss. The answer, the alternative, is simple and difficult: empathy, even across the widest differences.”

Gerson is so right: At the time of the most unbearable loss, it is the loss itself that must bind us, must hold us together to recognize our sameness and to cast off our differences. Time, which also helps heal the pain, provides ample opportunities to address and brainstorm the ways we can make our communities safer and more loving.

But, you say, isn’t it on the immediate heels of tragedy that the public’s attention is rapt, and therefore aren’t we more likely at that moment to effect positive change?

We’re not very sure of that. If you look at the aftermath of previous iterations of such a shared loss, it’s not all that frequent that the words uttered on the immediate heels of the killings made a vast difference in effecting lasting, positive social and legal change.

Don’t mistake this as a missive to surrender to hopelessness. Quite the contrary; we’re suggesting that if indeed there’s a hope for a fire of love to rise out of the ashes of hate, we must first pass through the time of mourning in which we are both honoring those who have passed and comforting those who have lost.

It is when we come together in this way that we can best imagine the possibility that Gerson so ably articulates as he finishes his column:

“We are called to imagine both the last, terrible moments of unjustly shortened lives, and the pain — sudden, unearned, unending — of those they left behind. And to hope, not only in this life but beyond it, against all the evidence of our grief, that love wins.”