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Time to Grieve Together

February 19, 2018

Before the blood had dried from the Parkland, Florida school shooting, the news media and various national organizations were already weighing in on the gun control debate. Several voices pleaded for space to grieve before turning this tragedy into a debate, but they were not heeded. Perhaps the perception is that honoring a time of grief–without debate–favors the gun-rights side of the debate. Perhaps the perception is that if we don’t immediately point to the problem of the easy availability of guns we will be dishonoring the victims and sticking our heads in the sand. Perhaps the perception is that if we do not strike while the iron of anger is red-hot, we will have no chance of making legislative changes.

All of these perceptions, I believe, are wrong. After the national tragedy of a mass shooting, the first thing we need is several days of setting aside our gun debates so that we can just grieve properly. There are multiple reasons why I believe this is so.

We need time to know all the relevant facts. Before we launch into a gun debate, we need to know as much as we can about the shooter, about motive, about the weapons, about how the weapons were procured, about possible warning signs, about security, about law enforcement efforts, and about relevant laws that were or were not carried out.

But more importantly we need to come together as one society–liberal and conservative, black and white, rich and poor, Southerner and Northerner–to cry, to feel the pain. We need to do this in order to feel solidarity, to be reminded that despite our ideological divisions we are still one society and we share a common humanity and a common desire for innocent people to grow and thrive and live in peace and security. We need to exercise compassion together and be encouraged by each other and build trust with each other. Mass violence can either tear us apart as a society or it can actually make us more unified. But we can become more unified only if we have time to grieve together.

When we immediately launch into blaming a segment of society for society’s ills, that segment of society immediately puts up a defense, and that segment of society gets emotionally cut off from full grieving and cannot feel the full pain of the victims. For instance, when gun-control advocates immediately blame supporters of the NRA, supporters of the NRA shift from grieving to defensive anger. Now the supporters of the NRA cannot fully grieve; they want to grieve but they also have to be looking over their shoulders to make sure no one is trying to take away their gun-rights while they cry. Hearts are softened not by starting arguments but by letting people grieve fully and enter into the pain of the victims’ families.

If we truly want a shift in attitudes about the availability of guns–the types of guns and who may legally own them–then we should be cultivating collective grief that involves as many people as possible.

Obviously it is impossible and unrealistic to prevent individuals from immediately beginning gun debates on social media following a mass shooting. But I think it is possible, and even realistic, for the major organizations on both sides of the gun debate to agree that after a mass shooting they will not comment for three days in order to honor the grief of the victims.

After several days of grieving as a nation, after several days of seeing one another’s tears of compassion and actions of generous love, after several days of being together in solidarity and sharing a mutual identity, then we can do the careful work of studying the facts and proposing reasonable steps toward a solution.

I think both sides need to learn more facts. Liberals perhaps need to ask: Why is it that gun violence has been plummeting in this country during the last two decades while the number of guns has skyrocketed? May it be that the number of guns, by itself, is not the key factor in society’s level of violence?

Conservatives perhaps need to ask: Why are mass shootings (and gun violence in general) so much more prevalent in the U.S. than in any other country? What are the social factors, somewhat unique to the U.S., that make this country so much more prone to killing one another?

Can we agree to let the government study gun violence in our society in more depth, with scientific rigor?

Might it be that both sides could come to some common agreements about who should have their gun rights restricted? Can we find some consensus on what kinds of weapons are not allowable for individual ownership? Can we mutually support policies and programs that will aid the mentally ill and foster a kinder, gentler society?

American society wants this kind of cooperation and wants agreements found. I think we can get there. Part of the process, though, is to do some healthy grieving together.

Perhaps churches have a role in showing society how to do this.

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