In addition to the difficult personal losses we’ve sustained as a parish this year, public figures keep dying: actors, artists, musicians. People whose lives were creative offerings; they keep dying. This isn’t new: people die; we know to expect that. But it seems, to many of us, that it’s happening more right now. More frequently, more quickly, on a grander scale.
In social media and elsewhere, there’s a sense that 2016 is to blame for these deaths. It’s this year – we seem to be saying – which has, let’s face it, been a difficult one. Syria, Russia, the destructive violence of a divisive election cycle, and now this sense that amidst so much hardship, 2016 has robbed us of some of our favorites. We are hurt. We are indignant.
But this communal sense of grief is intriguing. It isn’t just that, for example, David Bowie, Carrie Fisher, and Leonard Cohen died. Instead, the sense is that we lost them. It’s about us; that’s what’s different right now. Collectively, these losses feel like ours. We are weathering them together. In the story we’re telling, we occupy the position of the bereaved. Not as family members – nor even as individuals – but as a nation. We; me and you; us.
Witnessing this public reaction has brought to mind another time when loss felt communal: when it seemed to reach across class and race divisions and political divides. Most of us can recall that in the wake of 9/11, there was a strong sense of bearing so much death collectively. Even as we differed in our beliefs about how to move forward, we came willingly together to carry the pain. Few among us actually knew victims that day and yet: we had lost them, and along with them some sense of who we were.
A field of scholarship emerged in the decade following September 11th in which researchers considered that day and its aftermath through psychological, historical, sociological, and literary lenses. Theorists wrote about our collective grief, and a picture began to emerge of how it functioned. The sense was that our sorrow had much to teach about pre-9/11 culture. That the relief we found in collective mourning revealed a need to engage with those emotions in our own lives. Fear of death and resistance to grief are dominant norms in contemporary American society. For this reason, we as a nation struggle to allow ourselves sufficient space for the work of grief. We aren’t good at it. Considered in light of this cultural weakness, the atrocities of 9/11 offered space for depths of mourning that we, as a culture, otherwise avoided. We were already grief-stricken, the theory goes. But planes flying into buildings – the shock of it, the horror, the staggering death count – served as an invitation to mourn rigorously. To do so publicly. To do so in communion with one another. We could righteously lament all that wasted life, and as we did, we could perhaps yield more fully to our own unacknowledged distress.
It feels worthwhile to consider our collective reaction to the various deaths of this year through a similar lens. If we accept that for most of us, this particular grief is less about the public figures we’ve lost and more about our sense of having lost them, we gain access to insights about our current state as a nation. So too, if we take space to consider our scapegoating of 2016 as the reason we have had to endure these public losses, we might come to understand with more depth what this year has cost us.
Here’s what I’ve witnessed, and perhaps you’ve noticed it too. Public figures for whom we feel affection seem to be dying suddenly, and friends, families, and communities are commiserating with one another about the sadness and injustice of those losses. We’re sharing with those around us a sense of affront: coming together with humor, anger, and sadness. Thus I argue that this year, public loss is serving a profoundly important function: it is granting communion. This is so because when we see these emotions, we recognize humanity. We can’t not. Our grief makes us human. It helps us see ourselves in one another. It helps us look with kindness upon those around us in a way that we haven’t been doing enough of this year. And we’re leaning in to that grief, I think, for precisely this reason: we need to see one another; we crave it.
2016 was divisive. It saw unfold a polarity that has dangerous historical antecedents. In the U.S. alone, 2016 bore witness to threats and actualized violence against marginalized groups of citizens. It bore witness to anger, fear, and hatred. And perhaps most frighteningly, it revealed a widespread and startling resistance to the hard work of real listening. It gave rise to a destructive and ever-deepening sense that we as a nation are an “us” and a “them.” But however painful this is to face: anger, fear, divisiveness, and refusal to listen aren’t a product of this particular year. Instead, those reactions are a product of us.
This piece too is familiar. In the wake of September 11th, 2001 – in addition to uniting us with one another in sorrow – collective grief led us to search for someone to blame. In part as a result of that search, we retaliated against hidden terror cells in Afghanistan. Whatever your sense of the political necessity of the bombs we dropped, few would argue that the killing of Afghani citizens brought about collective healing. Facing that lesson, we would do well to acknowledge that as painful as 2016 has been, 2017 will not heal us in any substantive way. This is true, again, for the reality articulated above: anger, fear, divisiveness, and a refusal to listen are a product of us, not this year. We will only be free of those realities when we refuse to perpetuate them.
With this in mind, I want to suggest that as we welcome 2017, we do so with a sense of having acknowledged our collective sins of 2016: foremost our willingness to allow our brothers and sisters to be defined by a short list of political associations and perceived as less human whenever that short list differed from ours. I want to suggest that we recognize in our cathartic sense of collective grief an indication that some of what this year has cost us is the ability to see ourselves as one in Christ: to understand ourselves as in communion. And I want to urge us to see in our reaction to public loss an immense and unmet need for connection. To meet that need in other, more intimate ways. To reach out, in this new year, across the divides we’ve let define us; to begin again the work of listening and seeing to which Christ calls us.
Paul tells the Ephesians, “you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.” Public figures need not die for us to know ourselves to be one dwelling place for God: to understand with gratitude that which joins us together as one holy temple in spite of our differences. Enormous as our current cultural divisions truly are – and critical as it is that we commit ourselves to the work of addressing them – our shared grief reveals that part of our suffering comes from our willingness to give in to those divisions. It is worth considering what – of ourselves, of our culture – might begin to change if instead we “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets” by seeing one another as members of God’s household; by listening; by committing ourselves to kindness. We may well discover that such work lends itself to the political aims we are otherwise finding frustratingly unmet.
May this new year of our Lord bring you healing, comfort, and communion. May you enjoy one another with the freedom and unguarded pleasure of our creator God. And may a collective desire to meet one another in full recognition of our shared humanity heal us and our wounded nation, showing us a worthy path forward.