The Burden of Perpetual Grief

After the horrible school tragedy this week in Florida, I set about to learn more. I came across the story of a similar event that happened almost 90 years ago. It got me thinking, and when I do that, I like to write about it to help me process.

On May 19, 1927 in the town of Bath Michigan, an angry, evil man detonated bombs in a public school, resulting in the deaths of 38 children and 6 adults. To this day, it is the worst school massacre in US history. It was a horrific event.  Bath Township and the neighboring city of Lansing were paralyzed with grief from the tragedy. The news slowly spread across the country, but was essentially pushed off the headlines by the news of Charles Lindbergh’s successful crossing of the Atlantic two days later. (More on bombing)

Evil things still happen. As I’m sure you know, just this past Wednesday, an angry young man shot and killed 17 people at a High School in Parkland, Florida. It, too, was a horrific event. It is very fresh and very troubling, and a sad commentary on how far we have not come in 100 years.

As I learned more about the two massacres, I began to think about how the reaction to the two events are similar, yet different. In the case of the Michigan tragedy, the local citizenry was devastated, and the news trickled out to the world. However, If I have been living in Arizona at the time, there is a very good chance that I might not have known about it for days, unless I had the radio on, or saw it in the newspaper.

Contrast that to last Tuesday. As many others did, I followed the news coverage on my computer in real time. I watched live helicopter video of students leaving the building. I saw grieving parents and anguished students making statements and detailing what they experienced. It was brutal and tore at my heart. Since then, there has been endless coverage, video clips, articles, and articles. Social media has exploded with both pain and anger, and plenty of politicizing of the event. You can get in as deep as you want.

In 1927, the forms of mass media were limited to radio and newspapers. Today, the means are unlimited: regular and satellite radio, streaming, cable and satellite television, smart phones, social media such as Twitter, Facebook, etc. The news can get to us from anywhere, at anytime. Instantly. To paraphrase Mark Twain, “Bad news can travel halfway around the world while good news is putting on its shoes.”

Here is what has been occupying my brain for the past few days: We have the potential to be besieged by tragic news on a daily basis – and not just to be informed of the tragedy, but to be witnesses to it. Constantly. This is something unique to our time. Even a historic event such as Pearl Harbor was communicated via telegram and radio. When the twin towers came down on 9/11, you probably watched it live on TV, like I did.

In both previous eras and today, people naturally struggle with personal burdens and grief. I would suggest that there has never been an era where people have been so exposed to other people’s suffering on a daily basis as we are today, with perhaps an exception for life during wartime. We not only carry our personal burdens, but inherit burdens from people we have never met, from all parts of the world.

There is an endless stream of tragedy that we are now exposed to. Just last week there were deaths from plane crashes, the flu and murders, a stock market crash, wars and earthquakes – in addition to the school school shooting. Add to it the personal tragedies we experience, along with the stress that comes from money, politics, social issues, and you have a constant stream of baggage and pain, coming at us from all sides.

Is it any wonder that our society is inundated by anxiety, stress, depression, malaise, sadness and anger? There are so many legitimate reasons to grieve, and all you need to do is look around and you can find one – or a hundred.

When I watch these tragedies unfold, my heart hurts. It doesn’t matter that I am next door, thousands of miles away, or on the other side of the world. I commiserate. I feel empathy. I feel grief.

Mind you, I have experienced grief at a much more personal level that just seeing it happen remotely. Chrissie and I have lost our moms, our dads, siblings, a pregnancy, and dear friends and other loved ones. We know the burden of grief all too well.

Grief is a burden. It can be incapacitating. It can change our perspective on life. It can affect our relationships. It can affect our faith. The burden of grief is exhausting, and given the nature of this crisis-filled world we live in, it is relentless.

Yet at the same time we are told:

•  …men are, that they might have joy.  (2 Nephi 2:25)

•  “A loving Heavenly Father desires to see His children happy.” (President Hinckley)

“and in this life I shall have joy” (Moses 5:10)

• “We shouldn’t wait to be happy until we reach some future point, only to discover that happiness was already available—all the time!” (President Uchtdorf)

How do we do it? How do we acknowledge and empathize with the pain, suffering and trauma that is running rampant in the world, and yet walk around “happy” without feeling guilty or seeming to be heartless? I do not believe God expects us to live in a perpetual state of sackcloth and ashes.

Here are a few ideas to consider. I am well-aware that each item could easily warrant its very own blog post, but I will keep it short.

• First, find some perspective: Life is not supposed to be happy all the time. President Boyd K.Packer taught that “It was meant to be that life would be a challenge. To suffer some anxiety, some depression, some disappointment, even some failure is normal. Teach our members that if they have a good, miserable day once in a while, or several in a row, to stand steady and face them. Things will straighten out. There is great purpose in our struggle in life”(That All May Be Edified [1982], 94).

• Next, remember that happiness is a choice we make. President Uchtdorf taught “The older we get, the more we look back and realize that external circumstances don’t really matter or determine our happiness We do matter. We determine our happiness. You and I are ultimately in charge of our own happiness. Let us resolve to be happy, regardless of our circumstances.”

• Remember who we are. Elder Joseph Wirthlin taught, “You are stronger than you think. Your Heavenly Father, the Lord and Master of the universe, is your Creator. When I think of it, it makes my heart leap for joy. Our spirits are eternal, and eternal spirits have immeasurable capacity!

• Turn to each other. As members of the Church, we should be willing to “willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort.” (Mosiah 18:9)

• Step up.Elder Withlin taught, “Our Father in Heaven does not wish us to cower. He does not want us to wallow in our misery. He expects us to square our shoulders, roll up our sleeves, and overcome our challenges.”

• Live righteously. “But learn that he who doeth the works of righteousnessshall receive his reward, even peace in this world, and eternal life in the world to come.” (D&C 59:23)

President James E. Faust answered the question, “Will I be happy?” we can answer: “Of course! You are going to be happy, and even more. If you keep the covenants and commandments of God, you will have the joy promised by the Savior when he walked upon the earth.” (link)

• Embrace the Holy Ghost. The Lord refers to the Holy Ghost as “The Comforter” for a reason:

But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you. Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” (John 14:26-27)

President James E. Faust taught, “I believe the Spirit of the Holy Ghost is the greatest guarantor of inward peace in our unstable world. It can be more mind-expanding and can make us have a better sense of well-being than any chemical or other earthly substance. It will calm nerves; it will breathe peace to our souls… It is a way of maximizing our happiness.” (link)

• And ultimately, turn to the Savior, as He has asked us to do.

“Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

“Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.

“For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28–30).

“And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people.

And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities” (Alma 7:11–12).

The Savior has invited us to cast those burdens upon Him. I belief that our grief is one of those burdens that He is willing to take from us. We are not meant to carry those burdens by ourselves, indefinitely. Christ has already suffered for that grief.

Elder Bednar explained, “Thus, the Savior has suffered not just for our sins and iniquities—but also for our physical pains and anguish, our weaknesses and shortcomings, our fears and frustrations, our disappointments and discouragement, our regrets and remorse, our despair and desperation, the injustices and inequities we experience, and the emotional distresses that beset us.

There is no physical pain, no spiritual wound, no anguish of soul or heartache, no infirmity or weakness you or I ever confront in mortality that the Savior did not experience first. In a moment of weakness we may cry out, “No one knows what it is like. No one understands.” But the Son of God perfectly knows and understands, for He has felt and borne our individual burdens. And because of His infinite and eternal sacrifice, He has perfect empathy and can extend to us His arm of mercy. He can reach out, touch, succor, heal, and strengthen us to be more than we could ever be and help us to do that which we could never do relying only upon our own power. Indeed, His yoke is easy and His burden is light.” (link)

The tragedies that surround us, along with those that come at us from a distance can send us reeling. The grief is real, but even so, grief does not need to be a lifestyle. We can be aware of what is going on around us. We can be in the world, but we can also live in our own world of joy, peace and happiness.

After the 9/11 attacks, President Hinckley spoke in General Conference, concluding by saying, “Are these perilous times? They are. But there is no need to fear. We can have peace in our hearts and peace in our homes. We can be an influence for good in this world, every one of us.” (link)

God’s plan, and the Savior’s teachings and atonement teach us how to find peace and happiness. We are not meant to carry a perpetual burden of grief.

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  1. Thank you for sharing your perpective and the excepts from the scriptures and talks…I have been dealing with severe grief since I lost my husband almost 7 years ago, and this gave me a whole new persective to ponder….thank you again…..

  2. We talked about the 3 Sisters talk by President Uchtdorf today in RS, and one of the points made was that we can feel those feelings that are not positive (after all, God is not devoid of feeling), but we don’t let them stop our eternal progress. We’ve also been asked to read a couple of talks in preparation for a visit from an Apostle (a rarity in Virginia) and one of them is President Nelson’s “Joy and Spiritual Survival” and I shared his statement that “the joy we feel has little to do with the circumstances of our lives and everything to do with the focus of our lives.”

  3. Many have been taught that a tribulation period is a future event, that has not happened yet. But we are there now and have been there since the war in heaven.

  4. Thank you for processing your thoughts and sharing them. This has been on my mind and I appreciate so much being able to gain insight from your thoughts! I am facilitating our discussion in Relief Society today and am going to reference your post. Thank you so much!

  5. These are just the words of wisdom I needed today. I am teaching In Relief Society the talk by Elder Ellis “Do we trust Him? Hard is good” and your words fit so good into my lesson and give me a different perspective. They help with a week full of struggles as my daughter-in-law passed away this week. Thank you

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