When Grief Goes Public
When Grief Goes Public

When Grief Goes Public

Welcome back to Restorative Grief with Mandy Capehart. This is episode 14, titled When Grief Goes Public. This is my first episode after a mid-season break for the holidays and to overcome a cold, and this week, I’m going to get a little more personal.

Grief is always difficult to navigate, but when your story is made public, it gets even messier. Platitudes fly and people make judgments based on their own understanding, or lack thereof. Public grief is painful, repetitive, and exhausting. But, as I always say, with a little intention, we can shift the narrative and create grief literacy to equip the helpers to help and not harm.

I live in a relatively small area known as the Rogue Valley in Southern Oregon. In 2020, our region experienced a wildfire that travelled along the freeway and a bike path known as the Greenway. It decimated over 2,600 homes and buildings in four different cities along the way and taking three lives with it. At the same exact time another wildfire started less than 20 miles north as well, destroying 33 additional buildings and homes.

That day, our area dealt with 40 mile an hour winds, moving this fire fast enough that the fire itself was not the only fear. In the middle of a pandemic, our region now had an entirely new layer of grief to comprehend. To be brief, our cities rallied with incredible support, both physically and financially. The residents showed up in force with donations, fundraisers, and support for those who lost everything.

Now, if you’re new to my world of Restorative Grief, you may not know that during the fire recovery months, my book was only about halfway written. It was in the late fall of 2020 that I launched the Restorative Grief Project, and many of my one-on-one coaching clients in the last year are directly related to the fires. There hasn’t been a moment since the fire that I’ve really stopped thinking about the impact on our valley and the way grief will be intertwined with our region for decades to follow.

But let’s fast forward. It’s been a little over a year; the anniversary of the fire last September was a tender moment in the valley. It felt quieter in our neighborhoods, like a moment of silence and recognition of all the work that remains. We have entire neighborhoods still waiting for permits and builders. The funding for housing is pretty laughable, and the stories from FEMA support would break your heart.

In the wake of great loss, memorials are often erected to commemorate the loss of life, land, and security. Our region has a few statues, erected in neighboring towns that suffered the most damage. They were designed by local artists, and welcomed in the city as a reminder of recovery and hope.

Grief in the public sphere will always be misunderstood. Those who mean well will say and offer things that create no real healing. I remember one particular day in the recovery center at our church that I looked into a large box of donated, brand new t-shirts. I thought it was wonderful until I realized they were excess 5k race day shirts.

It would be really easy to say that those in need would be grateful for a new shirt. But we rejected those donations, along with all the donations that were so obviously someone’s dump run boxes. stop

The dignity of a person matters more than saving money, time, or even saving face. In the rush to be seen as helpful, so many of us default to the lowest form of contribution, which is to say, whatever is convenient is what we will do. The easiest way for us to be involved is the path we choose.

When you have lost everything, and someone offers you a tube of expired toothpaste, along with a few race day t-shirts and some mismatched linens, I suspect the last thing you will feel is gratitude. Don’t get me wrong – the gratitude is there. But it’s buried beneath feelings of shame and disappointment.

The donor may have saved themselves a few dollars by clearing their own cabinets for things they no longer needed, but in doing so, they prioritized their own comfort over the comfort and healing of another.

We’ve talked about this when it comes to platitudes, right? The basic idea being that we feel uncomfortable hearing about or experiencing your losses, and so we say the first thing we can think of to make ourselves feel better. Because we assume you want to feel better, and that we have what you need.

This is a long way to say that grief support is hard enough in a small arena, face to face with someone you know. But the same principles apply when your entire city is falling to pieces. If you want to contribute, you owe it to the grievers and yourself to learn about what is truly needed. Grief literacy means learning how to present support in a way that is meaningful to the griever; not just easy or meaningful for you to offer.

And this goes beyond thinking about what YOU might want or need if YOU were in the same situation. Because you’re probably not in the same situation. Even if you’ve lost everything to a housefire or survived an abusive relationship. Maybe you too know the pain of miscarriage or being maligned and fired from a job you were really good at.

That does not mean that you know what is needed for the next person experiencing that type of loss. It simply means you are a little more comfortable addressing that kind of pain, and can potentially be a supporter. But your role as a support is only valuable if you’re willing to ask questions before offering answers. stop

This conversation has been on the top of mind this week not because of the fires specifically, but because the concept of offering support without asking permission came up in my own life. I won’t bore you with the details, but a tribute to the fire survivors was offered to our city as a memorial. But it seems as though the design of this memorial was created without the input of anyone who actually experienced the fires. Meaning, no one asked the grievers what they wanted.

A small news article reported on the design and committee, including a photo of the mockup statue already on display in the window of a local art gallery. I’m not being dramatic, but my heart sank when I saw the design. The design itself is actually quite moving; in large scale and the right context, I’m sure it would be a powerful statement.

The problem is the context. The design itself invokes images of fire, human figures, and lighting designed to mimic flames – even at night.

Now I’ve lived in this valley for 20 years. I moved here during a summer when the valley was filled with wildfire smoke, which at the time was the worst fire our region had ever experienced. I have spent 20 years from spring through late fall, paying attention to the Greenway, the fields, and the hills for signs of smoke or flames. Most residents here do the same thing; we live on the edge of tension because our area has seen far too many close calls to let our guard down.

Hopefully that context can give you a little insight as to why a statue designed to stand 20 feet tall and intended to look like flames from the nearby freeway would cause my stomach to drop.

As the news spread, local residents spoke vulnerably of what a statue of this design would mean for their own grief recovery. And it wasn’t great. And again, the design is not the problem. But the design in the context our city’s history and current grief state, as well as the lack of resources for those still physically rebuilding, changes the content of the statue. The meaning shifts to reflect what the audience interprets from the work.

This isn’t a conversation about art, or the value of beauty, or even the work of an individual. This is a conversation that if you choose to show up in support of a griever, you must also choose the humble route. You can’t arrive with answers or solutions. You have no right to tell them what they need or how to feel.

Every single person recovering from the fires in our area experiences their story in a unique way, and because this fire impacted so many families here, we are grieving publicly with one another every day.

When grief is public like this, there will never be a single solution or answer. But as we rebuild together, we belong to one another. We owe it to ourselves and to our city to ask more questions, and assume the best about one another. Our region deserves to heal on our terms, and to push back when there is an assumption about what will help the healing process.

So if you find yourself in a position of support for a large group of grievers, please remember this one piece of advice: Listen.

You will hear stories that break your heart. You will find hope glittering beneath their tears. Your own capacity for empathy without correction will increase exponentially if you learn how to listen without trying to fix anything. Your job as supporter is hold space for those who grieve, and find what they need and want by listening to them before you make any plans to act.

Thank you for listening to episode 14 of Restorative Grief. I’ll be honest; I’ve rewritten this episode three times. The pain is real. I am in the middle of advocating for a city I’ve supported and loved for 20 years. It is no small thing when grief threatens to destroy your community, but luckily, I’m no wallflower, and that’s exactly why I’m willing to insert myself in the middle of loss on behalf of someone else. I hope you found something in this conversation that can help you navigate public grief events.

And I didn’t mention this, but that includes when an individual is simply unable to feel comfortable or composed in a public setting. Protect their dignity. Quietly ask what they need or want, and if you can fulfill one of their requests, do it. But if they say they’re okay, be humble enough to drop the conversation. Because ultimately, being a grief supporter is never about you or what you can bring to the table.

Thanks for listening. I’ll see you next week.

Links + Resources from this episode