Creating Sanctuary For The Tragically Bereaved 

K. Neycha Herford | January 9, 2023
A woman in three-quarter profile wears a red knit cap over her dark hair. She wears a metallic long dangling earring and looks to side of frame. She wears a black zippered jacket with white crew neck color of shirt visible.

Writer k. Neycha Herford. Photo by Joseph Woods.

This article discusses homicide, suicide, and other difficult themes. If you or someone you know is struggling with suicide and need support, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988. Grief and loss resources are available here.

White Noise: The Deafening Silence

There are so few tragedies that we want to look at directly. Faced with a false sense of inefficacy, and what psychologist Paul Slovic calls psychic numbing, too often we avoid the most traumatized among us who could benefit from our help. Anyone who’s ever suffered a casualty knows firsthand what it’s like to be gaslit.

As I outline in my book, White Noise: The Underbelly of All That Lingers: Surviving Sudden-Death Grief, the tragically bereaved are often kept at a distance, receiving awkward pleasantries while their grief goes unacknowledged, unexpressed, and unhealed. I call this phenomenon “white noise” – the silence that sings ’cause nobody got nothing to say.

Name Your Pain

Black and white image. A woman in long white nightgown sits against wall and pulls her knees up to chest and curls into knees.

Photo by Sam Moghadam Khamseh.

In 2002, my partner of 10 years was robbed, shot, and left alone to bleed to death under a flickering dusk-to-dawn light, while I was trying to reach him on his cell phone. The debilitating grief I felt was not the same as someone who experiences anticipatory grief. My grief was unforeseen, jarring, and the result of violence. It was heartbreaking to navigate in a grief-avoidant world that included some of my closest friends.

Studies indicate there is “profound social pressure to conform to societal norms that constrict the experience of grief rather than support it” (See Oppression of the Bereaved: A Critical Analysis of Grief in Western Society). As a result, I joined a traumatic loss grief support group because I needed to be with those who, because of their own experiences with homicide and suicide, were not visibly uncomfortable in my presence. For 12 weeks I drove a four-hour commute to sit with 11 strangers in an old, converted Tudor home with the faintest redolence of wood stove smoke because the support group provided something I got nowhere else – the opportunity to talk about the devastation I felt without needing to justify it.

As a transformational life coach, I knew that to speak and name one’s suffering creates the possibility for acceptance, progress, and transcendence. The problem is how few people are willing to hold space for such piercing despair.

The Price of Avoidance

Two children walk down a gravel road. One has an arm around the other.

Photo by Annie Sprat

Traditional grief and social service models too often fail to address the complex forms of trauma caused by sudden death – and in reality, tragedy of any magnitude. In Western culture, we seem to believe pain is contagious and if we can silence the “Debbie Downers,” we might avoid the difficulties of life. After all, if unimaginable tragedy has not arrived at one’s door, it’s tempting to believe those are “things that happen to other people.”

However challenging it is to see, the unmistakable toll of grief, tragic death, and social avoidance penetrates every sector of life. In a graphic 2019 snapshot, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that the economic cost of injury was $4.2 trillion. For those directly impacted, work productivity decreases. Job loss increases. The rate of illness multiplies. Relationships end.

Our society’s discomfort with sadness extends far beyond grievers. There’s a rapidly increasing demographic of those who face intangible losses and find themselves drowning in white noise. In 2020, there were 1.1 million suicide attempts in the United States, according to the CDC National Center for Health Statistics. Nearly 46,000 Americans died by suicide in the same year. Combined with drug overdose deaths and homicides, there were approximately 479 needless deaths every day in 2020.

These fatalities reflect an epidemic of hopelessness. The data makes clear just how many Americans are suffering, yet our social distancing from pain continues. When we demonize difficult emotions, by extension, we oppress those for whom the full expression of their pain is vital. Johann Hari writes in his New York Times best-seller Lost Connections, “if you’re depressed, hopeless, and anxious, you’re not weak, crazy, or a machine with broken parts. You are a human being with unmet needs.”

Unmet Needs

Two women with long brown hair hug each other by a waterfront. A white building with white tower is visible behind them.

Photo by Mental Health America

Every day in my private practice I see clients who are desperate for uncensored conversation and fearless connections. Whether death, divorce, or job loss, they tend to feel they have been gaslit, abandoned, and left alone to sort out the crises of their lives. This is unsurprising. We learn to distance ourselves from distressing emotions, particularly our own, and consequently those of others. This reality lays bare the injurious gap between the needs of the emotionally wounded and our willingness to respond.

Every year that gap widens in America. There simply aren’t enough mental health practitioners to meet the needs of those seeking help. Where does that leave the bereaved? “Overwhelmed and re-victimized,” said New York survivors of homicide who, after confronting “too much bureaucracy,” gave up on services due to them from the Office of Victim Services (see article in The City.) In 2019, the New York State fund designed to financially support those who have lost a loved one to physical violence awarded only nine percent of nearly 70,000 claims.

When the bereaved can’t rely on public systems or their inner circles, where do they go? To whom can they turn?

The Power Of Intentional Community

In the video above, author Johann Hari tells a moving story about the powerful role of community in helping a person contend with grief. Hari also discusses what he calls “our superpower as a species – we band together. Just like bees evolved to live in a hive, humans evolved to live in a tribe. And we are the first humans ever to disband our tribes. And it is making us feel awful. But it doesn’t have to be this way.”

In a landmark AARP study, researchers found that social connectedness is a powerful antidote to grief. Dr. Dhruv Khullar, a resident physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, also arrives at that conclusion, advising in his article for The New York Times, “Human connection lies at the heart of human well-being.” He writes, “it’s up to all of us – doctors, patients, neighborhoods, and communities – to maintain bonds where they’re fading and create ones where they haven’t existed.”

Safe Spaces

Across the U.S., innovative artists, activists, and organizations are creating spaces for transmuting pain, cultivating community, and confronting difficult topics. In the New York City area, they include:

  • The National Alliance on Mental Illness of New York City (NAMI-NYC),  which offers online, and in-person support groups, many of them peer-led, that place an emphasis on lived experience. 
  • Center for Family Services, based in New Jersey, which offers counseling and support services to help people recover from grief caused by homicide, suicide, accident, and drug overdose loss, while also addressing traumatic community incidents.  
  • Theater of War Productions,  which presents dramatic readings of important plays, from classical to contemporary, followed by frank, cathartic town hall discussions about complex social issues that correlate with the themes of those plays. Founder and artistic director Bryan Doerries, appearing on the radio program, On Being, shared how the death of his girlfriend informed his approach: 

…when she died, the thing that actually hurt the most wasn’t her loss, it was the fact that nobody wanted to talk about it. And the more I tried to talk about all these things… the more people seemed to recoil. And it took me about a 100 performances of Theater of War… to realize that at a very core level, the work I’ve been doing for the last 12 years has been about creating the conditions where people will talk about it.” — Bryan Doerries

Doerries’ work resonates deeply with me because it underscores what I know to be true, both professionally and from my personal lived experience: having a courageous witness who will set aside their own biases and beliefs and simply listen is essential to the health of those in mourning or anyone facing emotional distress. Counselors and clergy offer this affirming presence. Our relationships can offer so much more. For it is not the tragic losses alone that threaten our vitality. It is the absence of genuine connection and how easily it can influence us to believe that we are alone.

Creating Sanctuary

Four women wear colorfully coordinated coats and are seen from behind, linking arms across each other's waists. They wear shades of pink, orange and purple.

Photo by Vonecia Carswell

The support group I belonged to succeeded for how succinctly it accomplished what I describe in my work as creating sanctuary. For more than 20 years in private practice, I’ve been committed to cultivating safe and sacred spaces that honor our intrinsic need to be in communion with at least one other person who intimately understands our pain, and with whom we feel free to undo our masks and seek healing. That is exactly what my support group offered me. To support others in their moments alone, I offer my free grief meditation on the app Insight Timer.

I am evidence that unhurried, compassionate conversation can save a life. Sharing stories is crucial for the tragically bereaved. If kept inside, those stories can strangle life, one unspoken word after another.

There is more we can do to create sanctuary for the emotionally wounded:

1. Suspend our judgments about grief.

2. Pay close attention to the people around us: listen for what they say and don’t say; speak up if we notice a change in their appetite, sleep, or accessibility.

3. Prioritize connection in your community as a lifesaving measure.

4. Ask the scary questions and make space for difficult answers.

5. Confront our helplessness and take action anyway.

6. Employ radical empathy: listen with love, speak with compassion.

7. Pause and offer our full attention and caring presence, over and over again.

“Rarely, if ever, are any of us healed in isolation. Healing is an act of communion.”– bell hooks

By k. Neycha Herford.

Community Connections examines issues and ideas of meaning to diverse communities throughout New York City and across the United States. Presented by The WNET Group, home to America’s flagship PBS station.

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