This is a tragic story. I tell it because I know that everyone reading this has also experienced tragedy. No-one is immune and everyone is trying to heal in one way or another. We are not alone.
In 2008, my dear mentor and colleague was raped and murdered in her home in Chesterfield, Missouri by Bryan Walters, a man living with his parents across the street from her. Nancy Miller was the head of the student newspaper at St Louis Community College at Forest Park where I worked as managing editor. She was one of my social and emotional anchors in St Louis, a new home for me after emigrating from Australia. Her violent death shook the whole community, as she was a beloved features writer for the popular St Louis Post Dispatch, and everyone who knew Nancy felt the embrace of her southern hospitality and fierce compassion. Personally, I knew her as a teacher and role model I never finished receiving transmission from.
Obviously a terrible tragedy, this is something I can look back on now, seven years later and reflect on how the core concepts of mindfulness, kindness and a sense of common humanity were key elements in my experience. In the current climate of violent acts and tragic deaths, it’s worthwhile talking about how we as human beings be with these kinds of events. Not on a social or political level, for the purposes of this particular conversation, but on a personal and community level. How do we move through such terrible times?
Mindfulness is never a bad place to start. Often the most obvious point of mindfulness when something terrible has happened is that moment when we first learn about the tragic event. I remember clearly the tone of voice on the other end of the line, as I listened to my co-worker’s distraught voicemail message, while sitting in the passenger seat riding home from a daylong retreat. It’s that moment when time stands still; that moment that stays with us long after the event, that codes itself into our memory banks as an undeletable file. The moment of learning about a tragic event is a moment of mindfulness because nothing else matters in that moment – we are completely there. What comes after that can become a blur.
From then on, mindfulness can be one of our greatest anchoring tools. Mindfulness of emotion, mindfulness of being overwhelmed (“This is a moment of being overwhelmed”), mindfulness of “What do I need?” in each moment. Mindfulness of grief and allowing grief to work its way through us. Mindfulness of denial and an appreciation of our mind’s attempts to keep us safe through denying the unacceptable. Mindfulness of anger, once again as a way to protect ourselves from feeling the softer emotions that lie beneath. Mindfulness of shame. To not bring mindfulness to our experience is to attack ourselves all over again through rejection. To deny our experience is to neglect our needs at a time when our needs are vast.
We can feel very alone in our grief, but the reality is that we are very much connected in our experience of grief. In the aftermath of Nancy’s death, part of my coping strategy was to focus my attention on organizing meetings of students along with the support of on-call counselors. I acknowledge that it was convenient to be able to focus on organization and on the needs of others as a respite from my own grief, but the organization was needed in any case, so it wasn’t a bad way to express myself at that time. We were aware of how one tragic event can trigger memories of other tragic events, and we wanted to look out for our young charges. One student had been shot in the head by her father; another one was a refugee from Kosovo – there was no shortage of stories of trauma, spoken and unspoken.
No-one is immune from being touched by trauma and grief. No-one.
People in America (and any country, for that matter) suffer at the hands of our neighbors, our family members, our teachers, our carers, and strangers. We suffer individual acts of violence and atrocities of a magnitude no-one can fathom. No-one is immune from being touched by trauma and grief. No-one. What if we were to acknowledge trauma and grief as being part of every human being’s experience? What if we could feel the embrace of a community of people equally touched by tragedy? Our sense of connection, of common humanity, might help us to keep our perspective, to feel belonging rather than isolation in our experiences of grief. Others have navigated through the same dangerous waters as us; we can learn from them. Our sense of belonging might be a big, welcoming doorway to our right of passage through healing.
“Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.”
~Naomi Shihab Nye~
When I learned about the events leading up to Nancy’s death – how Bryan had asked for rehabilitation while in jail but received no help; how his parents, one of them a disabled greeter at Walmart, had taken him in after he was released from prison and had hoped to support him in getting back on his feet; and how his mother worked selflessly with the police, before her son was even a suspect, to make sure the truth of the crime came out – I can’t help but drop to my knees and give myself up to kindness and sorrow. How sad I feel for that couple whose lives are now forever to be tormented by the actions of their son. I want to find that Walmart and let that father know that he is not alone. It is only kindness that matters.
I dream of a day when it truly is only kindness that matters.
And for Nancy’s partner, Peter, who she wrote about often in her St Louis Dispatch lifestyle articles (calling him her “friend” but we all knew otherwise) and her relatives, after all they had been through, it was only kindness that mattered. Nancy’s colleagues wrote that when Bryan received the “lighter” life in prison sentence rather than the death penalty, that this was what Nancy would have wanted, and this was what her family wanted. There seemed to be agreement that the tragedy experienced by Bryan’s parents was enough, and that there need be no more violence. When “… you know how desolate the landscape can be between the regions of kindness,” it is only kindness that makes sense anymore.
This story is just one of mine, and I know it is just like one of yours. It’s taken me a long time to understand, viscerally, that we have a shared history of trauma. The sooner we as a society acknowledge that, the sooner we can start moving toward a culture of healing and mutual appreciation, and away from a culture of isolation and blame. I dream of a day when it truly is only kindness that matters.