I was recently affected by a tragic act of violence that took the lives of two people I knew. We seem to hear about these kinds of incidents so often these days in America. But it’s different when the tragedy strikes close to home, and deeply impacts your own community.
The aftermath of this event, and the many moments of individual and collective grieving I’ve experienced and shared with others, have made me think a lot about the meaning of community, and the role of community in providing safety and comfort and space for healing from grief and trauma.
As a writer, I always like to look at the etymology of words, their linguistic roots. Knowing the origins of a word sometimes helps me tease out hidden layers of meaning. The word “community” comes from the Latin “communitas,” and it’s related to our English word “common”—as in “the things we have in common,” the things we share, the things that collectively give us a sense of meaning. Things like family, and friendship.
Many people in my community are experiencing grief and trauma. Some feel intense sadness and grief over losing people who were dear to them. Others are not only grieving, but are also traumatized by the violence they witnessed.
There are no magic words that anyone can say to make this kind of pain go away. What I can say for sure, from my own experience, is that recovery from grief and trauma can’t be done alone; it takes community. And it can’t be rushed; it takes time, and patience with ourselves and with each other.
Life doesn’t come with any instruction manual for what to do when situations of intense grief or trauma arise. But I think this theme of community shows us the way to at least begin moving forward. None of us can go through these things alone. We need each other. These are the times when the power of family, friends, and community are perhaps felt most powerfully, as we provide space to hold each other’s grief, to honor each other’s pain.
The other element that’s essential for healing from grief and trauma is time. Grief hurts, so it’s natural to want a quick resolution. But grief moves at its own glacial pace, and it ebbs and flows like the tides. There are days when it feels manageable, and then days when it feels overwhelming. One of the most difficult things about grief is that we have to let it unfold in its own time. Life will begin to return to some semblance of normal in its own time, as we do the work of healing. The pain of grief and trauma, which is so sharp at first, lessens with time. It may never completely go away; nobody can promise you that it will. But it gets better, with time. Only with time.
And during the long process of healing, we can support one another just through our presence and our friendship, through recognizing and honoring each other’s vulnerability.
The famous Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh was forced to flee from his home country of Vietnam during the conflicts there. He was nominated in 1967 for the Nobel Peace Prize by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for his noble efforts at peacemaking. On the experience of fleeing his country, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote:
“When the crowded Vietnamese refugee boats met with storms or pirates, if everyone panicked all would be lost. But if even one person on the boat remained calm and centered, it was enough. It showed the way for everyone to survive.”
I was reminded of that message again when I walked into Whole Foods recently and stumbled upon a greeting card with the following message:
“Peace: It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble, or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart.”
No one who experiences grief and trauma has asked for its noise and trouble. It came uninvited. And make no mistake, recovering from it is hard work. But it is possible, I believe, to be in the midst of grief and trauma and still be calm in your heart. And if you can share that calm heart with even one other person, then you strengthen the bonds of community and you help the community to heal.
If I could pull one lesson from the fire of tragedy and grief, it would be this: Be here now, fully. Live your life. Love everyone as much as you can, and set aside petty differences. Make your life meaningful, and don’t take even one moment of it for granted. In the next moment, you might be gone. Celebrate life while it is here, take good care of yourself, and honor each other.
The prize-winning novelist Arundhati Roy said it best:
“To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget.”
Dennis Hunter is a meditation teacher and the author of You Are Buddha (2014) and the forthcoming The Four Reminders (2017). He lives in Miami with his husband. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.