There is loss you can never understand without experiencing it, the kind with a magnitude beyond comprehension. It tugs at that human, even animal, empathy within you, but is just as quickly gone with a disbelieving shake of the head and a Facebook update. Of course, it is essential to our survival and happiness to be able to separate the suffering of others from ourselves — it is just too constant, too massive. Then something catastrophic happens in your life that you had only seen on television, and you find yourself forever changed — attuned to grief in a very different way, a feeling of visceral connection.
Just days after returning to college for my senior year, after a summer at home, Hurricane Katrina swept through my hometown and destroyed everything I had ever known. I couldn’t find my parents, my grandparents, my little sister. I couldn’t get through to them, I could only watch horrors unfold on the news and grasp at the smallest threads of information that came through family friends. I remember feeling like an alien … I was surrounded by people I loved, who were so kind to me, checking in with me, offering support, but who also looked at me in the most confused and uncomfortable way. How could they empathize? How could they have any idea what to say? There was suddenly a chasm between us, and I was deeply alone.
Once things had calmed down a bit, and I learned of the safety of my loved ones (though not our homes), I went to the student center, and found it difficult to walk through the hall because it was piled almost to the rafters with donations. People were organizing vans of volunteers. Changing their spring break plans to go to New Orleans & my town, Bay St. Louis, MS, to muck out the homes of total strangers. It moved me to tears — it was no longer random charity, but felt like an outstretched hand to my own family.
I was terrified of my Thanksgiving visit, when I would see things for myself. I expected to be devastated, shattered, surrounded by depression and utter defeat. There were moments of that. But there were also so many moments of immense kindness — gestures both grandiose and subtle. People sharing tools, people cooking community meals, people organizing building teams (when they had already lost their own homes) for the elderly, the sick, the disabled who couldn’t help themselves. Late at night, after a few drinks, my neighbors quietly told me stories of those who had risked their lives to rescue others; around the same tables were those who had taken hiatuses from their jobs and families, to move to a little town in Mississippi — for days, weeks, months — to do whatever was necessary.
I saw the absolute best that human beings have to offer, over and over and over.
I saw it again in my new hometown, Nashville, in May of 2010, when the city suffered extreme flooding. And again last year, when I — along with many, many others — volunteered after the tornadoes that leveled small towns across Kentucky.
And now, in Boston.
There is no silver lining with a terminal illness, a terrible accident, a natural disaster, an act of cowardice and brutality. Nothing can undo it, it can only be mourned. But another thing happens during these moments: all that is nonessential is suddenly, painfully stripped away, and we are left with only our humanity. We are reminded of our fragility, our mortality, our need. We see so plainly what we are capable of doing to each other, and what we are capable doing for each other. And we reach for each other, show up for each other, instinctively. Day by day, we find solace in each other, both a reason and a means to keep going.