Bearing the Unbearable: Never-ending Grief

by Suzanne Belote Shanley

The June commemoration of Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church, reminded us of Mary “standing by the cross of Jesus” with other women relatives (John 19:25-34).  Mary beholds the desecrated body of her son, spikes nailed into hands and feet, thorns lacerating his head.  She hears her son groaning in agony his last words, words of forgiveness.

As if the Uvalde and Buffalo weren’t enough, we began morning prayer at Agape on June 6, the day after Pentecost Sunday, remembering the victims of the continuing mass slaughter over the weekend–gun violence in Tennessee, Virginia, Arizona, and South Carolina, leaving 6 more dead and dozens injured.  22 weeks into the year, America has seen 246 mass shootings.  The numbers keep climbing.  As of June 13th, the ever-staggering body count was 5 dead and 27 injured.

Scripture as a Context for Grief

Unlike the bodies of the slain children at Uvalde, Jesus’ tortured, and mutilated body was visible to his mother and to the women under the cross.  The Mothers of Uvalde did not see the decapitated and shredded bodies of their children; instead, officials used saliva swabs from parents to identify their horrifically disfigured children.  Doctors on the scene reported their own trauma at the unspeakable sight of these small, shattered bodies.  

The Realities of Mass Slaughter: How to depict carnage?

The New York Times and the New Yorker bothcarried recent articles querying whether people in the US were ready to view, (if any of the parents of the slain children indicated they were), the bodies of the massacred children in open caskets.  Initially, such a proposal seems macabre, grotesque.  Yet, history records that it was the viewing of the body of the lynched fifteen-year-old Emmett Till in 1955 at the insistence of his mother, Mamie, that galvanized the Civil Rights Movement. 

The authors of these articles, as well as the writing and photography of many photojournalists in the past, such as Susan Sontag, (Regarding the Pain of Others), center on the value of visual images of atrocity.  They each ask a similar critical question: Could gruesome visuals of war (and gun madness in the US) have any effect on a population in a state of voluntary psychic numbing?  Could outrage over the immediacy of such visuals mobilize a movement?  Editorializing commentary came and went amidst the funerals, the eulogies, presidential mourning, and the new death tolls.  Tom Cruise made millions on his latest “action” film, as children across the US “play” virtually, with blood-splattered screens recording “kills”. 

Personal Encounters with Grief: Covid, Gun Violence and Ukraine

No national forum existed for public grieving during mega covid deaths.  My brother-in-law Paul’s Covid passing in January 2022 and the Covid death at age 47 of Allah Mathematics Allah, who was like a son to us from age 5, wrapped us in a pall of grief.   Allah overcame incredible odds as an African American male who went from jail to ownership of a business, inspiring hundreds in his Dudley Square residence in Boston, with his community outreach through his barbershop, EveryTHing is Real.  Both Paul and Allah are two of the million or more nationally ungrieved.  The issue of mass murder, grief, pandemic death, Ukraine, merge to present a major challenge for our violence-saturated internal process.

My distanced grief and outrage continued during the news reports and videos of civilian executions in the Ukrainian town of Bucha.  Repulsive and riveting, images of hastily dug trenches for mass graves, inflict new emotional tolls, leading to the question: at what point is such imagery too much? The thudding of black body bags, randomly tossed into makeshift graves, convinced me that I couldn’t turn away.  Yet, I moved into a suspended state, all the while deepening the darkness.  As I sought a way to de-traumatize, I felt guilty that my own needs seemed so self-absorbed, self-protecting.

How to process this spiraling sadness, seemingly terminal abyss of violence? I take myself to Jesus and the cross, to Mary and her circle of keening women. I realize the biblical implications of watching The Mothers of Uvalde outside Robb Elementary School, some handcuffed and restrained attempting to rush into the building which became their children’s’ graveyard.  Mary too may have tried to pull Jesus down from the cross, wailing and screaming. 

Rituals of Grief

The day of the Uvalde massacre we, at Agape, were only one day into a rural immersion with students from Stonehill College.  In the shock of the moment, we came up with a ritual of communal grief to initiate with these students.  We decided to light 21 candles for the children and teachers and one large candle for the Buffalo victims.

All of us somber, attentive, each student walked up to a photo on the Agape altar of each of the children and the two teachers, reciting, one by one, the names of the slain.  We lit 21 candles from the central Jesus Easter candle.  Then we were silent.  Our stillness was born in part of confusion and dread.  None of us had experience in processing grief for murdered children.

Perspectives on Grief in Times of Massacres

In her treatise on grief and war, Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? the social theorist, Judith Butler, speaks to the issue of “public grieving,” which has become a regular occurrence at gun massacre sites some labeled as scenes of “domestic terrorism.”  Butler contends that “there is no life and no death without a relation to some frame.  Even when life and death take place between, outside, or across the frames by which for the most part they are organized, they still take place. …”  (p. 8) Butler’s analysis attempts to use an image of “frames” which includes how a viewer integrates or frames a photographic depiction of a horrific event.  She asks the reader to consider a “frame” for viewing such abominations as the killing of civilians in the Iraq war?  Is gruesome photography justified?  Does it enrage?  Can it numb?  Will it move us to action and remedy?

Butler suggests that “open grieving is bound up with outrage, and outrage is the face of injustice or indeed of unbearable loss which has enormous political potential.” (p. 39) She observes that Plato was worried that too much open and public mourning could end up “disrupting the order and hierarchy of the soul…and of political authority as well.” 

Do we share an aversion to public grieving which comes at a cost?  Public grieving takes time.  We cannot sink back into our daily routines.  If we bypass a response with “political potential” and do not engage in massive outrage as in the global outcry in the killing of George Floyd, what becomes of our frame of grief?  Are we grief-fatigued, silent, numb?

How does a “disrupted soul” respond to carnage when the souls of legislators are not similarly disrupted?

From the killing fields of Ukraine to the Tops grocery Store in Buffalo, the blood is not easily washed from the hands of those whom Thomas Merton referred to as “great criminals with enormous power…in a death struggle with each other.”   These criminals include “well-meaning lawyers and policemen, clergymen” who are a “front controlling. …communication and enrolling everybody in their armies.”

The Violence by which we are formed

Butler suggests a question of context: Can we frame, the killing of children in the US to include a truth-telling about slaughtered children in Iraq and Afghanistan?    

When the US pulled out of Kabul, for example, a targeted killing of Zemaro Ahmadi, a supposed ISIS operative resulted in the death of 10 including 7 children.  Zemaro was a US based worker addressing malnutrition in Afghanistan.  Pentagon apologies followed.  The US offered no apologies for the bombing of Afghanistan after 9/11 or the invasion of Iraq, similar in scope to the Russian obliteration of Ukraine.

Butler posits “…a breakage…between the violence by which we are formed and the violence by which we conduct ourselves.” If we can clearly see this breakage, then perhaps we will be poised to accept the “responsibility not to repeat the violence of one’s formation.” (p. 167)   In other words, violence is endemic to the American “frame” as we selectively grieve or don’t grieve.

Butler envisions roadblocks to “affective responses” to murder and death as “highly regulated by regimes of power. …”  The Pentagon “regulated” the press coverage of the targeted murders after the American military’s exit from Kabul. Butler contends that the “power of the image” is controlled, “knowing full well that it could and would turn public opinion against the war in Iraq. …”  And by analogy, the war on guns, the Pentagon budget.

The Forgiveness Frame After the Fact

One example of an “unregulated” narrative frame is the iconic photo by Nick Ut, of Kim Phuc Phan Thi, the “Napalm Girl” from the Viet Nam War, as a nine-year-old, running naked, her back seared with American dropped napalm.  Fifty years later, Thi weighed in through several media outlets on her trauma and maiming, relating them to the victims of Uvalde: “The thought of sharing the images especially of children may seem unbearable—but we should confront them.  It is easier to hide from the realities of war if we don’t see the consequences.” 

Thi insists that as human beings we must connect the “wars abroad and that of the domestic equivalent of war,” the gun massacres.  In a counterpoint to many critics who stress the invisibility of American war victims, Thi contends that we “don’t see bodies” in the carnage of Uvalde as we do “in foreign wars.”  Thi says that “we must face the violence head-on, and the first step is to look at it.”  (The Hill, Chloe Folmar, June 8, 2022)

Butler posits that “we feel more horror and moral revulsion in the face of lives lost under certain conditions than under certain others.”   American children’s lives lost, for example, may elicit more “revulsion” than “certain others,” children of the enemy, of the “other.”  Thi insists that we must merge these frames.

Grieving for American children gunned down in schools, blunted though it may be without a “National Day of Mourning,” points, however, to a distinctive discrepancy.  We process the murder of children and innocent civilians in war in which we are the aggressors different from our home-grown killing of each other.

Case in point is the American bombing of the Amiriyah Shelter in 1991 during the Persian Gulf War, where hundreds of Iraqi civilians, mostly women and children, were sheltering.  More than 1,500 people were killed in total.  “…. black, incinerated handprints of some of the victims remain fused to the concrete ceiling of the shelter and can still be seen today.”  (Wikipedia) One is reminded of the shadows of those incinerated at Hiroshima.  Russia’s bombing of the art school in Mariupol is another example of disputed frames and how the frames become manipulated and the real enemy, that of indiscriminate violence from any side, remains obscured.

The Weeping Mother of Jesus

Jesus, inert and lifeless in Mary’s arms, is the “frame” of war we embrace as Christians to move us to enact public rituals of grief.  We at Agape participated in a public grief ritual with Eric Wasileski, Veteran of the Persian Gulf War.  Eric was part of the missile launching crew which on Christmas Eve in the 1990’s sent missiles indiscriminately raining down on civilian targets.  He suffers from severe PTSD as the launch commander for the barrage. 

During America’s invasion of Iraq, Eric came to an anti-war vigil with Agape members in downtown Ware.  As a member of Veterans for Peace, Eric was journeying from town to nearby town, unfolding an American flag, and in a prayerful gesture of cleansing, washing a blood-soaked flag. We all washed the flag with a bucket of water, reciting prayers of lament.

Eric led us past trauma and complicity, cleansing our moral wound. Similar rituals enacted in churches and communities of faith, for victims of domestic terrorism and the American killing machine, might finally smash the illusion that the photos of grief in one country are different from the frames of war in photos of war in another.

 “Forgiveness set my heart free.”

Perhaps Jesus was comforted by the sight of the grieving women at his feet: his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala.  From the cross, Jesus forgave his executioners.  As the US descends into the hell of unremitting violence, we hear the words of Christ in those of Kim Phuc Phan Thi: “Forgiveness set my heart free. … I forgive everyone who caused my suffering, even the pilot.  … .”  After suicidal descent into utter despair, Thi found redemption through her conversion to Christianity.  She does not deny the “unspeakable evil of which humanity is capable.”  In the frame of the crucified Jesus, Thi intones that “peace, love, hope and forgiveness will always be more powerful than any kind of weapon.”

Mary, Mother of God, pray for us, for you have borne the Savior of our Soul.