Sandra Bland, Cash Askew, Jonathan Bernbaum, Donna Kellogg. Each of these names was brand new to me in the past eighteen months, and all of them only entered into my world through their dying. Sandra Bland’s death in her Texas jail cell under police custody caused outrage and questions of foul play. Askew, Bernbaum, and Kellogg were three of the 36 people who died in the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland. I have never met any of those people; I never will. And yet the loss of their lives stirs something in me that feels like grief.
Their deaths elicit other emotions as well. I feel anger and devastation about the brutality experienced by Bland during her arrest following a minor traffic violation. I feel anger and devastation about the young people whose attendance at a house concert and party in an artists’ collective space led to their horrific deaths. I am outraged by the systems in our culture that give way to such atrocities –in particular: in Bland’s case the condoning of police brutality and in the instance of the Ghost Ship fire substandard affordable housing in our country’s major urban centers. That anger, devastation, and outrage is all absolutely warranted and absolutely necessary. It is due to such emotions that action often is taken; many reforms of cultural institutions and radical changes in our society are borne from anger, devastation, and outrage.
However, there is more. I experience the anger, devastation, and outrage much like topsoil; they are easy to see and right there at my fingertips. Underneath those intensely tangible reactions, though, there is something else. There is the deep ground of loss. If I remain focused on the top layers of emotions and never dig deeply down below them, I may not even know that loss is there – that it, in fact, forms the very foundation for all those other experiences. This loss deserves to be excavated and explored.
Although I do not feel the loss of those individuals from my life, my mind can take imaginary trips into realms where it feels like I have lost someone near to me when I read about the deaths of strangers. There seems to be something fascinating about these kinds of fantasies; many people learn about something tragic and immediately paint themselves into the event. Indeed, this happens so frequently that people close to those dead often plead for privacy, asking that those who are not part of the community directly affected by the loss refrain from making comments about it on social media pages devoted to that community. I understand both the frustration of those close to the departed and the fascination of those unable to abstain from interjecting themselves into a situation that has nothing to do with them. This fascination can serve an important purpose. By imagining ourselves in the situation of another, we work our compassion muscles; this is, in fact, how young children learn to experience, build, and use compassion. So some pieces of the loss we may feel when we learn of the death of a stranger have to do with that – imagined loss.
But underneath even that imagined loss is true loss – subtle but palpable.
How can that be? How can I feel grief at the death of people about whom I had no knowledge until their death?
During the past two years, in northern Colorado Springs, the geographic region adjacent to my hometown of Monument, teenagers have committed suicide in record numbers. Again, I do not know any of these young people. One I watched swim for years without knowing it, as he belonged to a team against which my son competes. Another was the nephew of one of my son’s teachers. But I did not know them.
And again, there is anger, devastation, and outrage — that we just are not caring for one another in ways that keep our young people alive and that mental health is an area of research and education where need so eclipses accessibility. And I can imagine the loss experienced by those who loved these young people. . . for moments at a time. The anger, devastation, and outrage compel actions on my part: help with education and advocacy, in this case. And the imagined loss works my ability to be compassionate. But if I stay on these uppermost layers, I will not reach the loss that underlies them.
A few years ago, just as my husband was beginning to teach our son to drive, there was a horrendous accident in our small town. Four boys attended some parties, four boys got into a car, two boys died, one boy suffered tremendous injuries, and one boy was convicted of vehicular homicide. The day that we received the news of the crash, I drove to the accident site. I had no idea why I was pulled there to pray. Again, I did not know these boys; I never would. And still I drive by the memorial to them several times each week; it’s on the way from my home to the monastery where I pray and where I teach. It changes all the time – displayed there are shoes and holiday decorations, teddy bears and signs. Each of these is a love letter to someone I never met. So seeing it sometimes feels like I am intruding on the most personal of conversations. And yet I force myself to look at it each time I pass. I force myself to watch what arises in me as I do so.
Again, the topsoil of anger, devastation, and outrage appear sometimes — about the forever consequences of some teenage mistakes. And about our kids having no way to safely and openly explore substance use under the guidance of wise elders so that they feel compelled to hide these explorations in ways that are dangerous and deadly. There is anger at all the blame spewed around in desperate attempts to rid ourselves of the devastation of such occurrences. I can use all of this for action; and I do.
And I can use the tragedy to pull me into ever deeper levels of compassion – compassion for parents who lose their children, for children who long for excitement and escape, for each of us who makes a horrible mistake that affects the lives of others.
But I am continually called to dig more deeply, to examine this subtle but undeniable pull of loss that underlies everything else when I allow myself to be opened to and by the death of a stranger.
I have experienced enough grief – my own and that of the people I serve – to know its pull, its wide range of manifestations, its uncontrollable terror and its delicate tenderness. Although this grief of a stranger’s death feels almost infinitesimal in relationship to the grief I have experienced when I have lost someone close to me, it is undeniable. It is the experience of loss.
But what have I lost in the death of a stranger? What do we lose together?
It seems to me that this experience of loss is the loss of some earlier version of myself, some piece of me that I cannot regain. It feels like the Amy who existed before reading about Sandra Bland or those persons killed in the Ghost Ship fire can never be found again. I will never again be the Amy who was unaware of the number of teenagers driven to suicide just down the road from my home or the Amy who believed that teenagers in our small town were not as easily lured into drinking and driving as are those in every other geographic region in our country. A layer of my naïveté has been stripped from me with each of these stories of death.
And sometimes I long for moments of not knowing, times of respite from the consistent sadness that can creep into my life the more aware I remain of the world around me. Sometimes I miss that state of not-knowingness when I imagined that all police officers behaved honorably and kept citizens safe, when I believed that people would not be harmed while in police custody, when I did not equate teenagers attending a party with death and devastation, and when I trusted that we were serving our young people better and taking care of one another better.
But I never truly want to return to any of those states where I existed previously. I do not want to return to that state of not-knowing, because my personal mandate is to be aware of the suffering of other beings and do whatever is in my power to be present to that suffering. So it is imperative that I examine the loss that I feel when learning of a stranger’s death. Without this realization of deep loss, these things cannot change. My tiny flicker of loss compels me to act on behalf of those who no longer can act and on behalf of their bereaved who must focus on their own healing.
When I dig down deep enough to feel our communal and cultural losses – those that occur every single time anyone’s life ends due to violence or mental illness, to recklessness or lack of responsibility – I become aware that each of us is united to our collective group of humans, all 7.5 billion of us, in ways we can perceive but never fully understand. Loss is one of the fiercest ties that connect us; and when I open myself to that loss, I experience those attachments between myself and my fellow humans – those humans I know and those whose deaths precipitate our meeting. Because death and loss weave together this tapestry of humanity in which each of us is a vibrant and needed thread, there really can be no death of a stranger.