Songs and Suffering

I can see them, huddling together behind bookshelves or under the desks. I can hear their thoughts, their heart beats. Is this it? Am I going to die? What will my mom say at my funeral? Will the police come in time to save me? Will anyone save me?

I can see them, huddling together over cups of coffee in a campus coffee shop. I can hear their thoughts, their heart beats. Will I pass my chem final? What should I do when I graduate? What if I don’t want to go home? Where is home anyway?

It’s cold, the first real rain California has seen in a long time. Stanford’s campus is relatively quiet. There are only a couple of days left before Thanksgiving, and people are mostly inside, studying for finals, buying their plane tickets for winter break. Meanwhile, at Florida State University, the students are wondering why it happened. A school shooting. It’s always another campus. It never happens here. Until it does.

I remember when it happened at Columbine. I remember how I suddenly felt cold in the middle of April, the kind of cold that makes you think you’ll never be warm again. When it happened at Virginia Tech, I kept refreshing the news websites, unable to look away from the rising body count. I thought about my friend who had died, young and unexpectedly, just two years earlier. The loss had shaken me to the core. When the death of one person can turn your world upside down, what does it mean to lose so many? I talked about it with my rabbi at a beach Shabbat retreat that weekend. The Torah reading for that week discussed the rituals that Jews perform after seeing or touching a dead body. Jews must complete these rituals before they return to their community for prayer. The ancient ones knew. A brush with mortality can shatter us. We need rituals to remember how to be whole again.

School shootings always raise questions. Is it because of guns? Is it because mental illness is stigmatized? Is it both? Maybe school shootings affect me so strongly because I can relate to students, and I’ve made a living out of it. I’ve worked on a university campus for the past seven years, and I was a university student for the six years before that. Students are the reason I get out of bed every day. Their lives are my calling, and their stories are a gift.

Over the past seven years, I have gained their trust. I have heard about their fears and their successes. I cheer them on in their campus musical and theater performances. I support them when they’re stressed about their exams. I coach them through interpersonal challenges. I give them feedback on their application essays and I write their letters of recommendation. I hold them when they cry because a friend has committed suicide or a grandparent has finally succumbed to terminal illness.

This week alone, I have had three conversations about grief, and one about depression. I listened, I validated, and I offered advice when they asked for it. This week I am including a memorial ritual for Transgender Day of Remembrance in my Shabbat service. We will think about this year’s 226 victims of transgender discrimination. We will think about Ferguson, and about the four men who were murdered in a Jerusalem synagogue two days ago, and we will think about the victims of school shootings, and the victims of genocide, about the Kesem campers who lost their parents this week, and about the Stanford alumnus who was found dead in the Bay. We will remember the ones who have no one left to remember them. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that no one should have to grieve alone.

When I read about a school shooting, my first impulse is to reach out. I desperately want to support the students who survived, I want to make sure they have someone to talk to, to process the trauma, to remind them that love exists in a world doesn’t appear to be loving. I imagine what would I say if it was one of my own students in the hospital, recovering from a gunshot wound. I wonder what I would say to the family. I visited a student in the hospital this past Sunday. It was an infection, and he’s mostly all right now. Healing takes time.

When the children and teachers were murdered in Newtown, it was in the week leading up to Chanukah, our Festival of Light. I remember going from one synagogue to another, looking for a place to say the mourner’s prayer. All three synagogues were hosting celebrations for the first night of Chanukah. The laughing and singing children and families felt like a punch in the gut. Wait, I wanted to cry out. How can you sing when so many are suffering? Then I remembered that it wasn’t right for me to think that way. People are suffering everywhere, and always. That doesn’t mean we should decrease our joy. It means we should increase our awareness, we should choose to bring light into the lives of others.

There was another school shooting today, and the rain is still falling. There is work to be done, and there are stories that need to be heard. We cannot suffocate under the weight of these losses when there are days and months marching ahead of us.

We need to remember, and we need to step forward, bravely, one smile at a time. We need to be the miracle, the moment of hope, the brightness bleeding through cracks in the darkness. We need to love in the face of loss, whether or not it touched us personally. We need to laugh sometimes, and cry, and hold onto each other. Because when it comes down to it, we are all we’ve got.

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