In the significant losses in my life, the death of my father and my brother, I had no opportunity for anticipatory grief. My father died suddenly of a heart attack one Christmas Eve. My brother died of an asthma attack. At 74 and 52 respectively, both died prematurely by today’s standards of life expectancy. While their deaths were sudden, they were not marked by violence. The events in Tucson this week, the murder of six people and the wounding of 14 others, sent shock waves of grief through that community and beyond. I felt, and sometimes still feel, traumatized by the deaths in my family, though they were attributed to natural causes. Sudden death by unnatural causes, like the all too frequent random gun violence in America, is a wounding of a greater magnitude. Sadly, I’m personally acquainted with a number of people who’ve lost loved ones to gun violence, and not only through my work as a grief counselor.
We all have an assumptive world where, in order to contain and function, we trust that our loved ones are reasonably safe. Otherwise we’d be crippled by anxiety all the time. When that assumptive world is shattered by inexplicable violence, that of one human being against his fellows, it’s a seismic shock to the psyche. This is true even in locales where the violence of war is nearly constant. People still want to believe “not me, not my family.” The families deeply affected by the violence in Tucson this week are facing psychic wounds that will extend into future generations. For some, there is that one less place mat at the table. The immediacy of this visual can bring it home for those of us far removed from these events. How can we possibly help? There are many levels on which we can make it better, starting with the “dailyness” of our own lives. One spiritual teacher on his deathbed was asked what wise phrase he could pass on to those left behind. “Pay Attention” was his reply. Our attention is so often on the past or the future, up in our heads, or on someone else’s business. What does it mean to be Present, as they say? You know it when you see it, is my experience. You also know it when you’re in it, the state of Presence. Both seeing it and being in it are commonplace around deathbeds where there is an opportunity for anticipatory grief. When people know they are going to lose a loved one, they pay exquisite attention to them. Often their grief is compounded by the awareness that they were inattentive when the loved one was well. We can spare ourselves much future grief by paying exquisite attention now, not only to our loved ones, but also to our fellow travelers wherever we meet them.
Besides this emotional and spiritual response, we can act on a social and political level to enhance community wherever possible and to stand against the proliferation of guns and other instruments of violence. This latest tragedy happened in the shadow of the lovely Santa Catalina Mountains. We can take that image as our inspiration to “Stand like a Mountain” against apathy, dis-harmony, and violence. The legacy of a nine-year-old girl, born on 9/11/2001, depends upon our Attention.