When news of a tragedy like the one in Newtown, CT this week hits us, most of us experience sadness, followed sooner or later by anger. This is a normal part of Grief, a complicated emotional process that is associated with a loss. Though most of us have not lost a loved one, we have all experienced a loss in one sense. We have all lost a little of the sense of safety and security we need to carry around with us in order to be able to function and focus on our daily business.
When we empathize with those who have lost loved ones, especially beautiful children, we feel the helplessness that goes with being unable to prevent such a tragedy. It is like an enormous defeat that none of our institutions and none of the better angels of our natures were able to prevent this suffering, this senseless loss.
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And the emotion that goes with the powerlessness of defeat is shame. It is poorly understood, but the emotion of shame is the natural, hardwired, reaction to defeat. When we are up against impossible odds, accepting defeat is necessary and healthy though painful. So shame emphasizes our feeling of powerlessness.
Because every significant loss is like a defeat (we were, after all, powerless to prevent it) shame is a hidden aspect of grief. Because we do not like to admit our powerlessness, it is natural to turn to anger, sooner or later. With whom can we be angry? The perpetrator, the culture of guns, the mental health system, the NRA, makers of violent movies and games, God?
When we see the numbers contrasting the deaths by guns in the US with those in other countries, do we notice the feeling of shame, or anger, or defensiveness?
These emotions: shame, anger, and grief, are powerful. They are designed for survival, for survival in a life or death struggle, but also for survival of a tragic loss. But there are times when we react to powerful emotions in ways that make matters worse. I have already seen facebook exchanges and televised dialogues in response to this week’s events that focus on competing ideas with a passion that may lead us into a deadlock.
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Passion is normal, often healthy, sometimes admirable. But it can mislead as well as inspire. Shame can convince us to give up in hopelessness rather than to continue to work for healing and change.
It is important to allow time for grief, to honor the loss, and to resist acting immediately on the feelings of hopelessness or anger. Understanding the emotions that are triggered by tragedy helps us to take time to honor the pain and respond as thoughtfully as possible.