I spent some of morning yesterday speaking to a remarkable group of global academics, psychologists and numerous knowledgeable leaders from a variety of fields and who get together every two years in various locations around the world two discuss the implications of some of humanity’s greatest sadness. This year they were in Canada.
Officially titled the International Work Group on Death, Dying and Bereavement, I realized I was standing before a gathering of activists who seek to not only understand grief but to influence policymakers who hold the responsibility of improving the global conditions that lead to such earthly pain. It was a challenge just to be in their midst; to address them was more than a little intimidating.
If we desired to understand just how the effects of grief and dying play out in our world, this group would be a good place to start. We talked about how the world is becoming more grief-stricken in recent years due to our inability to overcome those challenges that result in tragedy – climate change, refugees, war and conflict, economic and gender inequities, and just plain bad and ineffective politics. Some of us talked after my presentation, wondering that, if there was a way to measure the grief our present world was bearing, what would we find? There seemed to be a consensus emerging that it would be heavier and far more tragic that we might imagine.
It’s impossible to speak of such things without searching for solutions, and it’s virtually impossible to talk about answers without talking public policy – and that brings us naturally to our politics. Right now, politics and governing structures around the world are facing imposing challenges that could sooner rather than later see everything spinning out of control. Prosperity, peace, global agreement – such things are never a given and must be fought for. For that we require a political leadership of the highest order. We are still waiting for it.
And maybe that’s the problem: instead of waiting around for leadership we should be providing it ourselves – taking the kind of collective action that forces the political order to get out into the real world in ways that connect with suffering and humanity. All this will require that we greatly improve our capacity to connect with one another and show the maturity required to work together to bring the “grief threshold” down substantially.
Those best to make their mark on a grieving world are not the politicians, nor the bureaucrats, nor the bankers or academics, but those who know grief, still have it in their bones, carry it around all day and have had their life reshaped by it. Only when they, motivated by their own deep sense of loss reach out to those suffering collective grief at unimaginable levels, will we see the results. As Washington Irving put it:
“I should know enough about loss to realize that you never really stop missing someone-you just learn to live around the huge gaping hole of their absence. There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues.”
It is when these tongues, deeply acquainted with the personal torment of loss, speak for the world of the grieving that humanity closes the loop, bringing people of understanding together. In carrying on our own grief with an eye towards a broader humanity we bring to a hurting world the kind of healing that no law, legislator, diplomat or researcher can hope to provide. It is in empowering the grieving within civil society to reach out in understanding to a broader dimension that we can begin the process of better dealing with the world’s trauma.
Can we measure the world’s grief? Likely not. But we can pull alongside it, bringing companionship and a sense of justice for those thrust into loss through political events not of their own making but that still require consolation and action Perhaps some commentators are correct in saying the grief the world is bearing today is unlike anything in recent memory, but it’s time to speak up for those who have tragedy thrust upon them by politics, injustice and evil. And there’s no one better to lead that charge than an army of citizens who have endured personal grief and been empowered through the process to reach out and heal a broader world struggling in its own sense of unimaginable loss.