Disorganized Grief


The 77% Weekly Newsletter




When anti-Semitic violence occurs, Brian and I are surrounded by lots of love and support. Many non-Jewish friends are horrified and they tell us they have our backs as an interfaith/intercultural family. On Saturday afternoon, a neighbor with tears in his eyes handed me a piece of paper with a scratched out message on kitchen notepaper: “My heart is breaking for you.” Our wonderful, loving contractor from years ago sent me a text late last night: “I love you guys. I have your back.” Many clergy friends and newly made Baptist-identified friends called Brian when they heard. We heard over and over: We love you. We do not stand for this. We are so sorry.


People feel so helpless in the face of tragedy. People want to have an impact; they want to help change what is so wrong. The love we have received is beautiful.




Grief is fierce.


In my work as a psychotherapist, my specialty is grief and loss. In moments like this, I am reminded of how deeply disorganizing grief can be.


Grief is disorganizing. This means it stirs us up inside, it leaves us confused, bereft, and feeling sort of upside down.


Grief is disorganizing if the people who have died are close to us, if we have had time to prepare or even imagine the nightmarish scenario of their passing and then have lived that reality. The grief gets more complicated when the loss is sudden and unexpected – when we hear the news and we lose our breath because someone was taken from our lives out of the blue, suddenly.


The losses in our human collective level us. The news of a shooting at a Bible study, or during a school day, or, like Saturday, during worship scrambles us. At the thought of the sheer inhumanity, we feel shock, anger, and deep sadness. We imagine the terror of those people present, the responders who drove at breakneck speed, risking their own lives to save others.


Grief disorganizes us and sends our nervous systems into response: flight, fight, freeze. This is not dependent on character strength or spiritual muscle. As our human brains take in the information, our human bodies respond. It is how our bodies work.


If we combine our normal grief reactions with our overall sense of helplessness, it can feel even worse.


Saturday, I was pretty numb. I am less numb as I write this on Sunday. Tears and sadness are deep down in my gut, and my usual go-to response of rage feels somehow absent. I miss how my rage energizes me, although it makes me feel crazy, and I do not miss that at this moment.



Wherever you are, it is okay. I suggest you take a look inside and see what is actually happening, Ask yourself: how do I feel emotionally? How is my body? Do I feel cold? Do I feel tight? Am I craving a huge plate of nachos? A smoke? Could I be over-intellectualizing, avoiding, or spiritually bypassing my experience of this most recent tragedy or of all that is happening these days?


No judgment here… I just encourage you to try to stay in touch with yourself so you don’t fall asleep. (Checking-out tends to make the pain more paralyzing and toxic in the long run…it makes it so that the pain can’t transform into anything useful.)


We are all experiencing different responses to the tragedy at The Tree of Life Synagogue. If we stay awake to our experiences of this, if we can tolerate our discomfort and take stock of the gifts we have, we can move forward.


In my office, I have the privilege of watching people wrecked by grief slowly rebuild themselves and their lives. They move (slowly, slowly) from disorganized to less so, and in the best of circumstances, they slowly grow more compassionate, more clear about themselves, about what and who they lost, how it impacted them and how they will face what feels really hard: the future.



Your beliefs

I don’t care what your God beliefs are. God beliefs are a sticky place and a discussion of them in times of crisis often leads to intellectual merry-go-rounds, which aren’t very helpful. I don’t care what you call yourself: atheist, Catholic, Jew, non-believer, humanist. Our most important identification right now must be: I am a human being.


I don’t care about your God beliefs because today there is a bigger question: what are your human beliefs?


Human beliefs (also called values or ethics) look like this:

  • I believe all human beings are created equal
  • I believe that while imperfect, humans can do really bad things when rooted in hate AND do really amazing things when rooted in love
  • I believe that each human’s needs for safety, shelter, sustenance and respect are important and to be taken seriously
  • I believe that what I want for myself, others might want for themselves
  • I believe that I am not the center of the universe, that I share this human journey with others
  • I believe in the power of love, compassion, and justice

Lately, I have encouraged people to write out their most deeply held values and post them in their homes.


Your power. Our power. 

I am not worried about your faith in any higher power. I am worried about your faith in your own power.


After the tragedy Saturday, I experienced power, not helplessness. I only feel stronger amidst my grief. In the past, after a collective tragedy, I have never felt this way. Today, amidst my numb sadness, I feel grounded and strong. I know that what I believe to be true, that my core human beliefs about how other humans should be treated are true and just. I know this more clearly than ever. 


My hunch is that if we cling daily to our most deeply held beliefs, we can find the path ahead.


11 people died at the Tree of Life synagogue.  The memories of those lost can be for a blessing if we follow the age-old adage: Faith without works is dead.


If you have faith in an ethic of decency and love, of justice and safe living for all, of respect and kindness, then those beliefs must move into action.

It is time that we put down our computers, turn off the television, and change up some portion of our lives and our comfort (and God knows I struggle with this in my own life). We must move outside of our usual ways of being in the world.


This includes introverts and extroverts, all of us. I add that for anyone who just thought: “Ugh, but I am so….busy, shy, loathe to be with other people, disheartened, overwhelmed.” I get it, but I mean you, too. You too must take action so that you are not one of the people who stand idly by.

If you are already doing the work that needs to be done, thank you.  If you question your level of involvement, read on.


Get clear about the values you KNOW to be true and give them hands and feet. It will feel awkward at first and it might feel like a comfortable stroll eventually. At least there will be motion.


The great civil rights leader of our time, Bryan Stevenson, tells us the time has come to get proximate: it is time to get closer to the problems we are facing. This requires courage and might leave you with a nervous stomach, but it will make your beliefs about how humanity should work come alive.


Make their memories be for a blessing

May the memory of those lost at The Tree of Life be for a blessing.


May we make their memories be for a blessing with our works, inspired by the values which we know to be true.


May you make their memories be for a blessing with your works, inspired by the values which you know to be true.


Some ideas for Involvement:


Please, if you have experienced a trauma or are actively grieving a close loss or if you are fighting a current illness, take heed: there are many of us who can do the heavy lifting. Take care of yourself.


  • Email ten friends/neighbors, family members or co-workers and ask them to come over this week. Brainstorm together: How can we support one another to get involved? Make commitments to one another and to the group about the actions you will take.
  • Look at the balance in your life of doing versus thinking. For thinkers like me: have coffee with a doer and brainstorm. For doers: do the opposite but with thinkers you know. Brainstorm and start something small in your community or together, join an organization and put your talents together to help.
  • Contact a local mosque or temple, and ask if you can volunteer to help them every other week: tidy their gardens, serve food at their events, tutor a child who needs help with a school subject. Or, send a note or some flowers to tell them that they are loved. Then do it again, to another house of worship in your town or across your state, and then again.
  • Get political: I canvassed for a candidate for the first time on the day of the shooting at the Tree of Life.  I was really scared and didn’t want to go, but ultimately, I felt strong and like I was praying with my feet.
  • Contact your local interfaith organization and find out what they are doing and how you can help.
  • Pick a population you like (elders, kids, young adults) and think of your talents (gabbing, fundraising, cooking, teaching, being kind) and look nearby to see what organizations need help in those areas. I have a friend here in Portland who wanted to help with the midterms so she cooked for a neighborhood group that was spending two days canvassing in another part of their state.
  • A friend of ours signed up for four extra shifts at work and took that money and donated it to local candidates who share his values. This guy is busy, but he wants to make a difference, so he did what he knows how to do.
  • Regarding donations: certainly donate but challenge yourself to leave your home to work with others around an issue you care about: gun-sense, immigrant and refugee care, criminal justice reform. We need people to teach, drive, feed, enter data, set up tables, welcome people to events.
  • Sign off Facebook for a month, Twitter and Instagram too.  Just one month. Take four weeks to listen to yourself think.  I just did this and I am thinking more clearly and less reactively than I have in probably 4 years.  I feel less crazy. Use the extra bandwidth in your brain to think about this issue of involvement. See what magnificent motivation and ideas might be getting drowned out by the onslaught of digital noise and daily nervous system activation.
  • Write to an inmate on a regular basis.
  • Men, gather other men together to get more men involved in the needs of your neighborhood. Work to combat the gender differences present in community volunteering. Women are pooped.  
  • Contact local conflict resolution organizations and get trained to lead group conversations.

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