Some years ago following community prayer I noticed that a sister remained behind in her seat. She had tears in her eyes. I approached her and asked what had saddened her. She gave me a reflective smile and simply replied: “It is just a sense of universal grief. There seems to be so much sadness and tragedy in the world”.
We only need to look back on the past few weeks to get a sense of the enormity of the sadness and tragedy in our world. We watched in horror as the deadly bombings in Istanbul and Baghdad cut down innocent people trying to live their daily lives. On television I saw the agony of a man at Istanbul airport who had just seen his three children annihilated by a bomb.
In Baton Rouge, Louisiana in the US there was the shooting of Alton Sterling by police. In St Paul, Minnesota there was the senseless shooting at point-blank range of Philando Castile by a policeman when he was pulled over in his car for a broken tail light. This tragedy was filmed by his partner with her mobile phone. The world witnessed it first-hand. Retaliation followed quickly when a lone gun-man shot dead five policemen and injured seven others in Dallas.
And now, in the past few days, we’ve witnessed more violence and devastation: the terror attack in Nice on Bastille Day and an attempted military coup in Turkey. In Nice at least 84 people are dead and over 100, including children, are injured, while in Turkey, reports suggest 294 people are dead and over 1,000 injured.
What happens to those left behind after these brutal deaths? What of the wives and husbands, the partners and friends, the mothers and fathers, the children and siblings – all those who loved them?
It seems to me that at this time there is an overflowing of grief across the globe, through tragedy after tragedy. What are the consequences of this unremitting grief, pain and aloneness? There is an unresolved universal grief that is gripping whole nations and people; a feeling of universal helplessness in our capacity as humans to heal the gaping wounds.
Kate Jackson, writing in the May-June 2013 issue of Social Work Today, sums up the impact of episodes of mass violence: “Trauma and loss collide in episodes of mass violence. Emotional wreckage for the loved ones of those lost, heartbreak for the first responders, and gaping wounds in communities converge to create a phenomenon distinct from other losses”.
Traumatic grief has its own consequences for individuals. Unlike a natural death, traumatic grief carries sudden and shocking loss, often the viewing of the mutilation of bodies or no identification of loved ones. This is an excruciating experience which has a lifelong impact on those who survive.
However, it also has catastrophic effects on communities and the future of a community or city’s cohesion and well-being. Imagine the fear, the anxiety and despair in Istanbul and Iraq for generations to come. The traumatisation of children in such environments leaves an indelible scar, not only for their own psychological well-being, but significantly, for broader social relationships in the years ahead.
There seems to be considerable research in regard to the mental health impact on individuals who experience mass violence and the loss of loved ones, friends and community members. However, there is less research on the long-term impact on whole communities or nations. What appears to be missing across the globe at this time is a concerted effort to enact international programs and sustained attention to social healing and community-building. Our world desperately needs universal attention to communal grief and trauma.
The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance has produced a handbook entitled Reconciliation After Violent Conflict. In the handbook’s foreword it says:
“There is no handy roadmap for reconciliation. There is no short cut or simple prescription for healing the wounds and divisions of a society in the aftermath of sustained violence. Creating trust and understanding between former enemies is a supremely difficult challenge. It is, however, an essential one to address in the process of building a lasting peace. Examining the painful past, acknowledging it and understanding it, and above all transcending it together, is the best way to guarantee that it does not – and cannot – happen again.”
This is a formidable challenge facing our world. It calls for a totally different approach; not one of reciprocal violence, but through sustained peace-making which allows trust and understanding to slowly emerge. It requires the calibre of leadership like that of Nelson Mandela. Where are the new Mandelas? Who amongst our world leaders has the capacity and the skill to engage in a long-term healing process for a wounded world, especially in the Middle East?
First published in the July 2016 edition of The Good Oil, the e-magazine of the Good Samaritan Sisters.