Time and Space Needed for Grief and Mourning

“In war, death interrupts nothing.  Time doesn’t stop; it seems to accelerate.”  So wrote David French, in a New York Times column on May 25, 2024.  A veteran of the Iraq War, French goes on to say that in battle there is no time or space for mourning the loss of a comrade.  “Grief is the enemy”, he writes, because it causes loss of focus.  When someone dies in combat, a soldier needs to be even more alert and prepared to fire back at the next assault which is sure to come.  Any feelings of loss need to be shoved aside; one’s life depends on it.

It is increasingly being said (and written) that American society is on the brink of spiritual and/or pollical war.  One doesn’t have to look very far to hear would-be generals assembling their troops to defend themselves from attacks from the other side, and to be prepared to return fire when needed.  Live ammunition is not being used, but there is a fair amount of character assassination going on, and reputations, freedoms and in some cases people’s lives are being threatened. 

If there is an enemy, it is most often perceived as a particular weaponizing of some government overreach, if not assault.  For those leaning left, there is a mobilizing defense against the restriction, if not criminalization, of abortion access; and greater protection required for the millions of people who have been in this country for a long time, albeit illegally – and who are under growing threat of being rounded up without due process, incarcerated, and then sent away.  For those leaning right, there is a vocal – and visible, position that a citizen’s right to bear arms should never be compromised; and the promotion of open firearm carry laws, which in many states do not require either a permit or training, is just one indication of how serious they are.  When it comes to immigration, those on the right are increasingly hostile toward a government that they see as being inept, if not unwilling, to restrict the flow of migrants, resulting in what they see as chaos, crime and threats to job security, and the undermining of American values.

And ironically, those who lean left and those who lean right each claim that the other side is trying to shut down their first amendment right to freedom of speech.

The tension grows.  Various armories of talking points, position papers, and denigrating verbal and visible slogans and symbols are being collected.  Anxiety escalates, fear begins to dominate – and more and more people feel confronted with the daily choice of fight or flight.  The toxic American political ecosystem forces people to be on full alert; and to be prepared for what happens next.

And grief gets lost in the crossfire.  Mourning the loss of civility and mutual respect is not given the time and space it needs. 

I am writing this post on Memorial Day, the origin of which dates back to the end of the Civil War.  Originally called Decoration Day, it was an occasion for family members of fallen soldiers to decorate their gravestones.  It was a day of mourning the loss of life, and space for rituals which surviving families needed for their ongoing healing.  It was eventually renamed Memorial Day, which for a hundred years was observed on May 30, a day set aside for grief and mourning.  In 1971 Memorial Day was moved to the last Monday in May, making it a three-day weekend, and the unofficial start of summer.  Parades and remembrances are still held, grief and mourning are still expressed, but are often crowded out by barbecues, gardening and travel.

While there are serious issues facing America, and policies that need to be either fought against or supported, space is needed for grief and mourning the toxic – and tragic, polarization that America is mired in.  Rituals of lament and regret (as opposed to vengeance and victimization) need to be offered – on both individual and communal levels.  We are all suffering the loss of civility and respect, and the growing trend of fear and demonization.  Our souls are grieving.   David French describes the overwhelming feeling of sadness he felt upon returning from war, when the dam holding back grief finally broke open.  He cites the number of combat veterans who have been emotionally crippled by the inability to find time and space for mourning the loss of their fellow soldiers.

We need space for grief.  We need time for mourning.  Honoring grief and fear can lower our anxiety, reduce our fear, and open us to the realization, as Abraham Lincoln famously said,  “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Honoring grief and engaging in moments of mourning can help heal the tenuous bonds of affection, and bring out the better angels of our nature.




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