Pres. Obama’s moving address to the nation last week may be viewed as a fine illustration of how we help others who grieve traumatic losses and what such grieving demands of us.  Commentary on his own words will demonstrate how his short speech said so much.

“There is nothing I can say that will fill the sudden hole torn in your hearts.”

No words can undo this loss, though, ironically, this belies how much the right words and compassion can make a difference.  The violent and traumatic nature of the killings is viscerally felt and not avoided in describing its impact on the heart.

“We mourn with you for the fallen.  We join you in your grief.”

We do not grieve alone.  Communal support steadies the bereaved and lets them know they are not alone in their grief despite their feeling bereft in missing the deceased.  This is why funerals and staying in frequent contact with the bereaved is so important.

Pres. Obama goes on to describe in detail how each of those killed–John Roll, Dorothy Morris, Phyllis Schneck, Dorwan Stoddard, Gabe Zimmerman, and Christina Taylor Green–valued their lives and gave to others.

By remembering the dead, we keep their memory alive.  Remembering is done in the small details as well as the large arc of a life, which give it, respectively, uniqueness and meaning.

“Our hearts are broken—and yet, our hearts also have reason for fullness.  Our hearts are full of hope and thanks for the 13 American who survived the shooting…And our hearts are full of gratitude for those who saved others…These men and women remind us that heroism is found not only in the fields of battle…Heroism is here, all around us, in the hearts of so many of our fellow citizens, just waiting to be summoned–as it was on Saturday morning.”

Grieving–unlike depression–doesn’t take away the ability to hope, the capacity to find goodness in the world.  Pres. Obama doesn’t demonize the killer, but he wisely denies him the everlasting notoriety he may seek by not mentioning his name once in the address.  Instead, he focuses on heroes to admire and emulate.  Of course, the bereaved themselves cannot be expected to hold onto such feelings in the immediate aftermath of such violent deaths.

“How can we honor the fallen?  How can we be true to their memory?

Remembering the dead reminds us that death ends a life but not the continuing impact of that life on us.  The eternal religious teaching of foundational figures–Abraham, Jesus and Muhammad–offer the sense of immortality which is shattered, especially, by sudden traumatic loss.

“You see, when a tragedy like this strikes, it is part of our nature to demand explanations–to try to impose some order on the chaos, and make sense out of that which seems senseless.”

As Prof. Robert Neimeyer and others have explained, an important task of grieving is to try to make sense and give meaning to our losses.  As Prof. Janoff-Bulman describes, traumatic deaths result in “shattered assumptions,” which shake our sense of the world being a safe, just, and predictable place. Both of these important understandings of resolving grief highlight the importance of constructing new meanings and models of our world with which we can live.

“Bad things happen, and we must guard against simple explanations in the aftermath.  For the truth is that none of us can know exactly what triggered this vicious attack.”

Wisely, Pres. Obama avoids the temptation for quick closure by finding a reassuring explanation for such losses.  Perhaps, finding a spiritual and moral understanding for such horrors may also need to be an individual journey.

“Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hope and dreams are bound together.”

The rage such grief elicits, combined with the need to find answers, should not be satisfied by finding the ultimate cause, typically based on blame.  Instead, we need to come together, recognizing that our capacity for empathy and binding ourselves with others is a part of human nature. Our “instincts for empathy” are in fact shared with other mammals and biologically rooted in mirror neurons within our brain.

“We reflect on the past.  Did we spend enough time with an aging parent, we wonder? Did we express our gratitude for all the sacrifices they made for us?”

Sudden, traumatic deaths are so difficult because, among other things, there is no opportunity to say good-bye, to make amends for past hurts. Guilt may founder in its wake.

“So sudden death causes us to look backward–but it also forces us to look forward, to reflect on the present and the future, on the manner in which we live our lives and nurture our relationships…We recognize our own mortality, and are reminded that in the fleeting time we have on this earth, what matters is not wealth, or status, or power, or fame–but rather, how well we have loved, and what small part we have played in bettering the lives of others.”

Brushes with sudden, violent and often random death awakens us to our own mortality and the distractions we may use to keep us asleep from such awareness.  Meaning must be found beyond temporary pleasures which pump up the self, moving instead towards giving to others.  Through death, we can appreciate how temporary our lives are, providing reasons to live (and give) more fully.

We may not have know them personally, but we surely see them in ourselves.  In George and Dot, in Dorwan and Mavy, we sense the abiding love we have for our own husbands, our own wives, our own life partners.  Phyllis, she’s our mom or grandma.  Gabe our brother or son…”

As Freud noted long ago, one of the ways we come to terms with death is through identification, taking them in and making them a part of us, another way of denying mortality by living on through us.

“The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better in our private lives–to be better friends and neighbors, co-workers and parents…I believe we can be better. Those who died here, those who saved lives here–they help me believe.”

One of the ways we can find meaning from these senseless losses is to make something good come from it, not to justify it, but to right it.

That’s what I believe, in part because that’s what a child like Christina Taylor Green believed..I want to live up to her expectations.  I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it.  All of us–we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.”

Erik Erikson, pioneer of understanding phases of development, taught us that generativity, parenting or mentoring the next generation is the most crucial developmental task.  When our child dies, we lose our moorings and meaning in the world.  One of the vital tasks of a parent is to sculpt and fortify ideals through being admired and emulated.  That mentoring can continue and find some fulfillment when we continue to live up to those values.

Grief inevitably re-awakens our earlier, often unresolved losses.  While it looks to the future, it echoes the past.  Obama hardly knew the father of his dreams.  We often strive to become what we most missed and lost.  In his devotion to being a father to his children and symbolically becoming the father-figure of his country, Obama can resolve his losses and help us vicariously to resolve our own.

Irv Leon 2011

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Irv Leon

Irv Leon

Dr. Irv Leon, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist who has worked for over twenty years with more than two hundred families in the areas of reproductive loss, adoption counseling, and bereavement. He authored the first guide to psychotherapy for pregnancy and perinatal loss, When a Baby Dies: Psychotherapy for Pregnancy and Newborn Loss (Yale University Press, 1990), as well as over twenty papers and invited chapters in professional journals and books on reproductive issues. He has given over 50 presentations at international, national, and regional conferences as well as frequently being an invited speaker to hospitals, universities, and pregnancy loss and adoption groups. He is currently an Adjunct Associate Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Michigan Medical School where he teaches faculty, residents and staff on a broad range of reproductive issues and losses. Dr. Irv Leon was a guest on the radio show “Healing the Grieving Heart” talking about Healing the Broken Bond: Mourning Pregnancy Loss.” To hear him being interviewed on this show by Dr. Gloria and Dr. Heidi Horsley, click on the following link:

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