Jewish World Review Dec. 31, 2003 / 6 Teves, 5764

Russell P. Friedman

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Grief is Not a Partisan Issue: The Year in Review from a Different Point of View | As 2003 grinds to a halt and merges with 2004, there will be thousands of reviews reminding us of the chronicling events that shaped the year just past. Although there were many such events, the one that will command the greatest attention will be the war in Iraq and the unseating of Saddam Hussein. This is as it should be.

As the aftermath of Iraq drags on, it continues to ignite the fuel of partisan politics and engages an internecine battle for the hearts, minds, and votes of the public. This may or may not be as it should be, but it surely is the way it is - and perhaps the way it always has been.

In distilling the past year into a comprehensible emotion, we are compelled to remember an event that happened shortly after the year began, and which set a sad tone for the year to come. The event was the Columbia Space Shuttle Disaster. The set of emotions it generated can only be called grief, which has been the sad theme of this year. As if to put an unbearable piece of punctuation on the year, the December 26th. earthquake in Iran has claimed at least 25,000 lives and the toll is mounting.

Earthquakes, like shuttle disasters, are non-partisan.

Rather than re-write this year in terms of our collective grief, we thought it better to reprint the article we wrote when the Columbia disaster turned what might have been an ordinary Saturday morning into an eerie vigil with a very unhappy ending. We think the title and the content say it all, and hopefully will command us to move towards each other and not apart.

Certain events have the power to propel us into a paralytic numbness, as if a hidden thermostat inside our hearts shuts us off. The pain is too much to bear.

On Saturday, February 1, 2003, we bore witness to such an event, as news of the Columbia Space Shuttle Disaster broke our usual Saturday morning routines, speeding from time zone to time zone, east to west across America and around the world.

Another horrific wake up call, one we would rather have done without.

As the emotional Novocain wore off we tried to talk to each other about what we felt. But often there just weren't words to fit the emotions generated by an event that is too hard to comprehend. And sometimes even hugs, which neither judge nor preach, were equally futile.

There are several thousand people who were part of the immediate or extended families of the men and women who perished on the Columbia. For them, we imagine that their grief is profound, each to the depths of their unique relationships with the astronauts. And words, though well-intended, barely brush them as they pass by.

For the rest of us, at times like these, something larger than our own existence comes to the fore. Our membership in the family of humankind steps up. We care about the people who died, even though we didn't know them, because we are people too. Our hearts go out to the families and friends who must try to find a way to go on with their lives, because we also have families and friends and because we have the power of empathy which gives us a sense of what they might be feeling - if only just a little.

For the several hundred million - perhaps billions - of us, who did not personally know any of the seven who died, there is something else that may be affecting us today. It is most likely the memories of the losses of our personal lifetimes which come crashing back into our hearts and souls and minds at a time like this. As our brains struggle to connect the emotional dots of grief, compelled by this tragedy, we will summon up memories of painful events that have affected us more directly.

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People are often surprised when emotional memories of events from decades ago, flash back into their hearts as they walk through the quick-sand of current tragic news. Our brains, eager to help us comprehend what is going on, forage into every nook and cranny of our memory bank and find all the loss events, major and minor, that have ever made us feel sad.

Those who are directly impacted will circle the wagons of close family and friends, and will talk of their personal connections to those who died. They will talk backwards of the things they remember from their collective pasts, the good, the not so good, and sometimes even the ugly. And they will talk forwards about all the things that are not going to happen - the now unrealizable hopes, dreams, and expectations of the future.

They will talk. They will remember. They will laugh and they will cry. And that is how it should be.

For those of us who did not know the Columbia crew, we too must circle our wagons. We must count heads, and make sure our families and friendships are intact. We must take this unwanted occasion and use it to remember to say all those things to each other that we sometimes put off. Those simple yet profound things like the obvious, "I love you," as well as, "Thanks for the sacrifices you made for me when I was growing up," or, "I really appreciate your emotional support when I was going through a rough time."

Today we will talk. Today we will remember. Today we will laugh and we will cry. And that is how is must be.

Because we are the family of humankind.

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Russell P. Friedman is Executive Director of The Grief Recovery Institute Educational Foundation in Sherman Oaks, California [ ], and co-author of "The Grief Recovery Handbook & "When Children Grieve. Comment by clicking here.


11/11/03: Tuesday Morning at Eleven
10/30/03: Raging Fires --- Broken Hearts

© 2003, Russell P. Friedman