On Friday, after the news from Sandy Hook Elementary had taken hold of our collective consciousness, I wrote the following on my Facebook page:
In the wake of this horrific day, please be mindful of how you fill your mind and spirit. Just because we have a 24 hour news cycle doesn’t mean you have to watch it all the time. You can honor the precious lives lost even without knowing every detail. Your emotional wellness matters and can be impacted by the images and thoughts the news is churning out.
The “Virginia Tech Massacre,” the deadliest mass shooting in US history, took place on April 16, 2007. I had an eleven-day-old baby. He was a voracious nurser, and I spent hour after hour in my yellow chair, nursing my baby and watching the coverage.
There was not a victim I didn’t know. There were no details I missed. I watched everything.
I was a new parent and had just discovered the white-hot, ferocity of maternal love. I had known on an intellectual level that that kind of love existed, but until I felt it for myself, I had no clue of its power.
All of those children. All of those parents. All of those mothers.
How could a mother go on living after losing her child?
Fueled by postpartum hormonal wackiness and an utter lack of sleep, I sat and watched the coverage and sobbed my ever-loving eyes out. I cried and I cried and I cried.
Now, I am, by nature, a highly empathetic person. I can’t see other people grieve without feeling their grief very profoundly. Blessedly, I married a man who, although he feels things very deeply, can process and move on better than I. The news from Virginia Tech weighed me down. It drove me into deep despair. And my emotional, physical and spiritual health suffered as a result.
In the intervening five plus years, I have come to realize a few things.
First of all, as I said above, just because we have a twenty-four hour news cycle, we should not be compelled to participate in it twenty-four hours a day. In fact, I believe that the constant barrage of information – especially tragic information – is unhealthy.
Second, knowing every detail about tragic events in no way honors those whose lives were lost. I cannot “share in the pain” of their families. I can feel my own pain, and I do. But watching images of children in horror, seeing pictures of mothers on the worst day of their lives … this does not build me up. It does not make me a better human. It does not inform me or otherwise empower me to take action or make a change. It only drags me deeper into the depths of sadness. My sadness will not take away the pain the victims feel.
Five years ago, I had only one small infant in my care. Today, I am the emotional, managerial, logistical, etc. caregiver for three children, ages 5, 4 and 6 months. I do not have the luxury of crying my eyes out all day. I don’t have the emotional bandwidth to take on the pain of the grieving parents.
Nor should I. It won’t do them a lick of good.
Reading the work of Dr. Judith Orloff has helped me a great deal on many levels. In a piece called “Keeping Ourselves Centered and Protected,” she says,
We’re trained that as big-hearted people it’s laudable to try to relieve the pain of others. A homeless person holding a cardboard sign, “I’m hungry. Will work for food” at a busy intersection; a hurt child; a distraught friend. It’s natural to want to reach out to them, ease their angst. But many of us don’t stop there. Inadvertently, we take it on. Suddenly we’re the one feeling desolate, off kilter, bereft, when we felt fine before. This loss of center is what I want to address. It does not serve us. I am adamant: the most compassionate, effective route to healing people is to be a supportive presence, not attempt to live their pain for them. Moreover, sometimes suffering has its own cycle that has to be respected, hard as that may be to witness.
You may be more like my husband – able to watch the news and process it without being drawn into the immense pain. Or, you may be thinking something along the lines of, “If we don’t pay attention to what happened there, then weren’t all those lives given in vain? Doesn’t our attention make it matter?”
I’m not telling you how to respond to this tragedy. It’s something we each have to do for ourselves. What I am saying is that when we are caring for others, it’s easy to put self-care on the back burner. We don’t tend to our own gardens because we are so busy plowing their fields. Protecting our emotional selves and nurturing our spirits involves more than meditating, praying or doing yoga a few times a week. It involves making critical choices about what we are going to allow ourselves to experience. Ruminating about a tragedy will not bring back a single one of those precious children, and spiraling into a media-fueled depression serves no one well.
I can promise you this – you can always, always find ugliness, sadness and horror in the world. It’s there with the stroke of a key or flip of the remote. Make a conscious, positive, self-aware and self-loving choice about what you will do with that reality.
What’s your strategy for emotional wellness in the wake of tragedy?