Grief Is A Seismic Force For Social Change

[Photo: Flickr user  Lorie Shaull ]

[Photo: Flickr user Lorie Shaull]

For years, we could predict the response to any mass shooting with almost scientific precision: variations of “thoughts and prayers” would overwhelm our Twitter feeds. The Onion headline, “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens,” originally written in May of 2014, after the killing of six UC-Santa Barbara students in Isla Vista, would once again go viral. (The article has been reposted five additional times, tweaked on each occasion to reflect each new mass shooting.) Politicians and pundits would recoil at politicizing a tragedy, suggesting that now is the moment not to lobby, but to grieve. “There will certainly be a time for that policy discussion to take place, but that’s not the place that we’re in at this moment,” said White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the day after 59 people were killed in Las Vegas.

But the Parkland shootings changed that. “Thoughts and prayers” went from platitude to meme. Students at the school were quick to eviscerate anyone who offered up the phrase without a call to action. Tucker Carlson was careful to praise the Parkland students for their courage and resilience, even as he suggested that their peers who joined the school walkout were prodded or brainwashed into doing so by their teachers.

“The kids from Parkland and from all across this country are taking to the streets to try and make our future safe,” writes Emma González, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, in an open letter posted to the March for Our Lives website. “But we can’t do it alone. We need your help to amplify our message.” Just five-and-a-half-weeks after seeing their peers gunned down, Emma and fellow students will lead a crowd of 500,000 anticipated protesters in Washington, D.C.–one of 836 marches taking place that day

The Parkland students’ response to the tragedy that took the lives of 14 classmates and 3 teachers and coaches has been rightly called “courageous grieving.”

But there is nothing new in mourning through protest. Before Parkland students created a real-time archive of the shooting via Tweets and YouTube videos, Mamie Till chose to hold an open casket funeral for her son, Emmett, insisting that the nation look upon his brutalized body. In 1938, Aboriginal leaders christened January 26 a Day of Mourning, to mark the “150th anniversary of the whitemen’s seizure of our country,” and held a march and protest that continues annually to this day, and which has inspired similar protests led by indigenous communities in the U.S. and elsewhere.

When her 13-year-old daughter, Cari, was killed by a drunk driver in 1980, “I wasn’t even registered to vote,” said Candy Lightner, founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Today, the organization is powered by hundreds of thousands of volunteers and advocates across the country, most of them brought to the work by tragedy. At the time of its founding, 25,000 people were killed annually due to drunk driving. In 2013, that number was 10,076.

As AIDS decimated the gay community in the 1980s, survivors and friends channeled their grief into volunteer work and social and political action. The attacks on 9/11 produced a wave of people who left their jobs or careers in pursuit of a calling, characterized by a desire to do work that contributes to the world. Lucy McBath was a flight attendant before her teenage son, Jordan Davis, was shot and killed at a gas station for playing loud music. Today she is a candidate for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District and one of the Mothers of the Movement, joining Lesley McFadden, Sybrina Fulton, and other grieving moms as some of our country’s foremost activists for gun violence prevention.

Consider the words “stress response” and most of us immediately think of “fight or flight“: racing heart, quickened breathing, and a surge of adrenaline, a vestige of our Cro-Magnon ancestry, that once upon a time allowed us to escape a rampaging mastodon.

But in reality, says psychologist Kelly McGonigal in her book, The Upside of Stress, “fight or flight” is only one of several stress responses for which we humans are wired. In a crisis, many of us feel the need to do something, part of what scientists call a “tend-and-befriend response.” Our bodies release a surge of oxytocin, which reduces our brain’s fear response and motivates us to protect the people and communities we care about.

We tend to pathologize grief, and to focus on the negative outcomes of loss and adversity: on toxic stress, and Adverse Childhood Experience scores, and the biological response to trauma. By framing pain as a problem, however, and exclusively focusing on the negative effects of trauma and loss, we risk ignoring the effects of grief as a catalyst for change. On the whole, significant adversity makes us more compassionate, not less. In studies, “those who had faced increasingly severe adversities in life–loss of a loved one at an early age, threats of violence, or the consequences of a natural disaster–were more likely to empathize with others in distress, and, as a result, feel more compassion for them,” writes psychology professor David DeSteno.

That good things grow out of bad things is a story familiar to anyone who’s ever watched a Disney film, or considered the relationship between adversity and resilience in the fabled hero’s journey. Talk about the “gift of suffering” to someone really suffering, however, and most people will give you a deserving stink-eye. Meanwhile, those experiencing post-traumatic growth are made to feel guilty for feeling powerful, as though that growth were a disservice to the dead.

Yet grief and growth are two sides of the same coin. In an analysis of 42 studies examining both signs of post-traumatic growth (PTG) and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), researchers found a “significant linear relationship between” PTG and PTSD. In other words, higher degrees of distress are accompanied by higher degrees of growth.

“Memorializing the dead through protest doesn’t mean denigrating them–it means honoring their lives by making a better future,” writes the Guardian’s Stephen Thrasher.

In the wake of tragedy, we’re told to avoid big decisions. We’re met with the Pity Face, and if we’re lucky, three days of bereavement leave. Well-meaning friends and strangers peddle the five stages of grief, cocking their heads when our responses fail to conform to their expectations. Yet those five stages make no mention of grief’s power to motivate, not just out of anger, but out of quest for meaning, purpose, and agency.

“Putting most of our energy toward trying to change everything is helping a lot because we know there’s going to be something positive that comes out of this tragedy,” said 17-year-old Parkland junior Charlotte Dwyer, en route to Tallahassee to meet with legislators.

We don’t yet know if #NeverAgain, and the marches on Saturday, and the actions of a group of grieving students will catalyze a lasting change in America’s gun debate. But this is more than a moment. Our days of “thoughts and prayers,” absent action, are done. Students like Dwyer and González are a reminder: Grief has always been a seismic force for social change. We would do well to never again forget it.

Posted on April 2, 2018 .