Restless at 30,000 Feet
August 4, 2015
When someone dies, survivors and loved ones feel lost, adrift. It is the same or worse when someone dies violently, like in a church, or a movie theater, or military base. Mourners often experience profound restlessness. Unsettled, they wish to be anywhere but where they happened to be at the moment.
I had a family member who lost his wife, and he couldn’t tolerate being anywhere for long. When he couldn’t stand being at home, he traveled to visit family. As soon as he arrived, he wanted to be back home again. Whether it’s an attempt to escape pain, or aimlessness due to a temporary loss of coherence about life without the deceased, this seems to be common with grief. Maybe it’s a form of “shaking it off,” much like animals do in the wild, after close calls (something called tonic immobility). After all, death is usually certain to set off our nervous systems that register loss like this as a threat. This is also why we tend to encourage bereaved individuals to postpone making big decisions that we worry they may later regret.
What has occurred to me lately is that during coverage of shootings, a multitude of leaders and commentators, perhaps unwittingly, tend to practice their own style of restlessness. They decide that the best manner in which they can help the people who keep vigil in hospital corridors, and watch helplessly outside cordoned off crime scenes, and receive death notifications on their stoop is to follow the dictates of this restlessness. Whether it’s avoidance of vicarious feelings about the violence, or rush to anger, they proceed to 30,000 feet, and try in vain to undo what’s happened. What was once an understandable need to make sense out of what often remains nonsensical no matter how hard we try, becomes bitter and divisive when we can least afford it: it’s evil, it’s too many guns, it’s not enough guns, it’s “their” fault, it’s the actual victim’s fault for not carrying a gun, it’s the failed mental health or public school system, or it’s irresponsible parenting.
Meanwhile, people are experiencing their own restlessness at ground level, sometimes almost forgotten. Yes, restlessness is a natural part of grief. What we as clinicians can do is to spread the word. We can encourage people to be willing to sit at a level of hurt (hurt resides at sea level) with those who have lost a loved one regardless of degree of restlessness. We get the opportunity to do this frequently in intervention situations. Someday, instead of letting misdirected anger drown us out, grief education and stories about people and communities will become the focus in the media. Maybe the message will eventually reach 30,000 feet.