When you lose a loved one, unexpectedly, it feels like the whole world grinds to a halt. When you, and everyone you know, lose someone at the same time, the world really does.
Grief is a slow, grinding experience, like being crushed beneath a giant mill stone. There is pain, shock, disbelief and helplessness; there is no escaping it, or the gritty agony it brings. The weight is unbearable, grinding the strongest parts of you into dust. Grief is agony, and it can also bring a strangely euphoric sensation, almost an out of body experience, as we hug and cry, bonding deeper than we ever do under normal conditions.
The first pass of the cold grinding stone takes a full calendar year. Every major event, every square on the calendar is a stark reminder of the loss, and a fresh experience with the pain. The only way to survive grief is to move with it, through it, and accept that it is going to be a long process of acknowledging countless “firsts” and “lasts.”
The art of dealing with grief is to discover a fragile balance between admitting the reality of the process, without simply allowing it to grind you to nothingness. There are many passes of the mill stone, and yet just as each pass changes us, the stone is also changed, and each time it comes around, it is a little smoother, a little lighter, having also been changed by the wear. In time, the pain of the memories will dull, we will cry with a little less hysteria, and then, one day in the future, to our surprise, the memory of that special person will cause us to smile.
In the meantime, we cling to those who can understand. In cases of mass loss, there is strength in the numbers. It is healthy to cling to that, to allow the common pain to hold us together. Viktor Frankl, survivor of the Nazi death camps, taught that suffering without meaning leads to despair. Even though the loss may be senseless, it need not be meaningless. We can choose to assign a meaning, to create a positive meaning. We can choose to live on and do good in the name of the departed, and we can choose to bring triumph out of the tragedy, by a force of will. This may be as simple as comforting the other families, or it may involve supporting some cause that would have been meaningful to those we’ve lost.
Even in the case of unexpected tragedies, we can bring meaning into existence by our actions and intentions. This also provides us with a way to take our mind off of our own pain, which can only help. Grief will not be short-changed. Grief will have its time. And yet, we need not give grief the final word. We can convert tragedy to triumph.