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Is there a sorry big enough to help us move on from tragedy?

There may be several wrong ways to offer solace but there is probably no one right way
Kigali: Each year on April 7, the people of Rwanda gather to mourn the dead and remember the 1994 Genocide. Photo: Philip Maher

Two inconspicuous countries stumbled onto the news headlines this past month. A plane crash in Ethiopia and a mass shooting in New Zealand have left many in Guelph and around the world, shocked and grieving. I’ve spent my fair share of time with Ethiopians enjoying a macchiato, or laughing with Kiwis while devouring some green mussels. Having worked in these places, I’ve come to respect and love these cultures. I’d like to say I’m sorry, I feel your pain, but how do I do that?

Sometimes it’s hard to know just how to offer comfort, especially when a death is violent. Offering 'thoughts and prayers,' though perhaps well intentioned, has been tainted because of overuse after so many U.S. shootings. For many, it has become trite—symbolizing “I care but not enough to actually do anything about gun control.” It’s the equivalent of “meh” or “whatever”—both said with the tone of a 14-year-old valley girl.

In a crisis, offering condolences is fine for a quick pat-on-the-back, but how do you console an entire country or even an entire world religion? Personally, I’ve found many of our customary offerings of comfort lacking in depth. We find ourselves floundering for words to convey meaningful sympathy. Of course, a hug is always a good and effective stand-by, but most often, the opportunity does not present itself. Moreover, how does one hug an entire group of people?

Unintentionally, there is a tendency to minimize other people’s sadness. We have many grief minimizers. For example, “She’s in a better place.” Or perhaps, “He’s no longer in pain.” There is also the appeal to some greater wisdom, like “These things happen for a reason.” The corollary is, “When one door closes, another opens” - often used after a job loss. Most of these expressions are not particularly consoling when we are in the middle of grief. We are grasping at straws. It may be true that she’s in a better place or something better will come, but these are cognitive responses to emotional feelings. Though well intended, they ring hollow.

I recall a particularly moving scene in India where a woman sat on the ground throwing dirt on herself, wailing after she had lost a child during a disaster. Sometimes I wonder if joining her would have been the best approach. Telling her, “It will be okay” would have belittled the life of her child. I’ve attended funerals in Africa where women are paid to cry and mourn with the family. We need to grieve. Grieving allows our souls and emotions to process devastating information and its implications. Whether the loss of a loved one, a job or even a marriage, these can be trying times for us all.

Of course, each situation is different and local cultures vary. In Rwanda, the official colour for mourning has changed from ecclesiastical purple to grey, representing the custom of covering oneself with ash.

Initially at least, I avoid justifying bad things that happen to others and minimizing heartache. The sadness that comes from the loss of a child will never go away. With time, you may shed tears less frequently. But does one ever get over it? The best I can offer to a mourner is, “This is a tragedy, life is not fair, it can suck and I am sorry.” With time, people may move beyond a tragedy, I’m just not sure it helps to tell people that up front.

In part, we offer solace to others for ourselves. Tragedies create invisible wounds in us all. We feel that we need to say something. So, we provide our best attempt at comfort. It works for us, though perhaps not for those suffering. In the end, both mourner and consoler are looking for an emotional lifeboat with like-minded, stranded survivors, all looking for hope in a sea of despair. People in stress understand our feeble attempts to bond on a human level even when our words fail.

Practical comfort seems more meaningful—a meal, a hug, an expression of empathy or in some cases a prayer for peace. This past week I visited a mosque and offered my presence as a symbol of my stand against violence. I admit it cost me little. But it was something.

And so we are left with a shooting of 50 worshippers and a plane crash that killed 157 people from 35 nations. While the circumstances are different, the grief is similar.

There may be several wrong ways to offer solace but there is probably no one right way. To my friends affected by the plane crash in Ethiopia or those affected by the mass killings in New Zealand, all I can say is that sometimes things happen that drain the blood from us. It is not fair that you have to deal with this. I hope and pray that somehow, although you will never forget, at the very least you can eventually function. And, know most of all that people do care. I pray that they care enough to fix airplanes and to change gun laws, and that each of us can fight against dangerous extremist views that foster hatred.

I do not offer much. But I do offer peace.


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About the Author: Philip Maher

Philip Maher is a consultant and photojournalist. He has managed international communication projects for more than 20 years, taking him to more than 80 countries. His twitter is @mercytraveller.
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