Monday, December 17, 2012

Quakers, Grief, and Vonnegut

This past summer, I had the pleasure of attending numerous weddings. While they were all perfect for the couple du jour, I was particularly impressed by the friends who included the Quaker tradition of silence into the ceremony, allowing the power of the silence to fill the air as the couple exchanged rings. The father of the bride and I spoke after the wedding, where I said how joyful everyone was and he said that there were no words for such feelings. “That,” I said, “must be why the Quakers have silence.”

I thought the same thing a few sad weeks ago attending the memorial service for the mother of a friend. As the widower delivered the eulogy, he necessarily paused to gather himself. In those moments of silence, the power in that church as everyone channeled their deep love towards the man, this is again why Quakers don’t try to put words to that depth of emotion.

I am thinking the same thing now, throwing words like skipping stones into the grief and horror around the Newtown massacre. I have no words, no one has words, to give those lives back, or find meaning or purpose in their deaths. We may be able to use this tide of national emotion to block some other horror further on in time, but even if we could know what that could be, it still will not reunite families or restart childhoods or erase memories from the nightmares of first responders.

Like everyone I know, I have been wracking my soul to find some way forward from Friday. What burns me most is the thought of twenty little kids writing letters to Santa that will go unanswered. I know that is Christian-centric of me, but at this time of year, when I was their age, that is what my world was. And now, at thirty, I can almost imagine having my own children and this time of year being fun and magical gain. That loss is one of the parts that drives this into my gut and into my open eyeballs at dawn. As a country, we’ve crafted legislation and funding and support to go to the moon, and the inability to help people before they gun down an elementary school, and to keep guns far from the hands of such people, is egregious.

But again, in search of a solution, an answer, a lesson. Gun control seems an obvious step, but I’m more taken with cutting things off at the source by improving the mental health attitude in this country. Anything other than “normal” is so deeply stigmatized. Other than a few of my closest friends, I told no one when I started going to therapy this spring. I felt overwhelmed by life and could not stop crying. I didn’t want to tell anyone because I felt deeply ashamed for not being able to handle the stress of my not very difficult life. That stigma kept me silent, and that dementia and various forms of psychosis are among my deepest fears. My therapist was a wonderful woman and meeting with her made me feel less, rather than more, crazy. I fully intend to go to other therapists throughout my life as I need them, and I highly encourage everyone to do the same—and to admit that we are doing so. Even an easy, over-educated, white, American life can have potholes and tsunamis. And massacres and grief.

I don’t wish to engage in deep navel gazing here, despite this being a blog. No one is asking for my opinion, but I’m flinging it out into cyberspace because I don’t know what else to do. If more people would admit to going to therapy, of seeking out mental health support when needed, perhaps it can gradually become easier so that parents who struggle with “difficult” kids feel as fine about taking their kid to a therapist as to a dentist or a math tutor. And so that we all feel as normal about getting mental help as we do getting dental help.

This is my favorite Vonnegut story. The quote I love best from Timequake is “we are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.” Vonnegut got this pearl of wisdom from his son, Mark, who struggled with mental health issues. Shelving books in the library last winter, I came across one of Mark Vonnegut’s own books. Flipping it open, I read that Mark is now a doctor, still helping others through this thing, as he has been helped.

To me, that is a beautiful story. And we're sorely needing more beauty these days, or the eyes to see it with.

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