Today I had a great conversation with my friend and colleague Clare Maxwell. She is doing movement coaching on a fantastic BAM experiential theater exploring beliefs and emotions of Black life in America. Our conversation was an inquiry into how a white person could grieve black people being killed by police. It was a good conversation and it brought me to a real difficulty we all encounter in grief. It’s called regret.
Can we take accountability for actions we regret?
Feeling and owning our regret might be the hardest thing we can do. I recall working with a student who confided in me that years ago he did not go to see his child who was dying of AIDS. It seemed obvious that he carried a devastating feeling -perhaps even an unbearable guilt but it wasn’t fully conscious. I saw how pain he carried in his back would subside, albeit temporarily, when he allowed himself to consider the idea he had made a mistake. I know some people think pain I mostly caused by emotions and in this case I think it was true.
We all have things we wished we said or wished we didn’t say or do. I know when my own son died I felt so terrible I hadn’t pushed him to find more answers to health problems that didn’t add up. It gave me such an anguished feeling. That anguished feeling shut down my breathing and an array of old body patterns I thought I had let go of resurfaced. So what can I do about it?
I have to allow myself to feel that anguish. That simple act released my pain. We all wish for things we might have done differently. Seeing how changing our behavior might have changed an outcome is very humbling. It can take the wind out of our sails. This is a very tender place to be in but it has a gift.
Let Your Heart Break
It’s so hard to acknowledge where we missed the mark but essential. If you can’t make amends – or sometimes even if you can – this will break your heart. And yet, it is in that broken heart that healing happens. Seeing how we are less than what we thought we were but seeing it with love and self compassion is the way to being real. A broken heart makes us real.
The Velveteen Rabbit
In the children’s story, the Velveteen rabbit wanted to be real more than anything because truly feeling alive is the apex of our experience. Grief, at its core, gives us all of the vividness of human experience if we are ready. We can feel rich but this richness means we feel the things we are ashamed of as well. We feel the totality of our experience. That is being truly alive.
My thoughts on white grief
This brings me back to the conversation with my friend. When something horrible happens it will often shock us out of our complacency. Seeing innocent people murdered does this. When the crisis passes we can get lulled back into our complacency. We no longer feel the jolt of consciousness we get from something terrible happening. In that we can feel okay but the great experience of really living gets numbed.
My grief as a white person, if I can be awake enough to experience it, is really for all the times I just didn’t extend acknowledgement of my unconsciousness of the injustices of race to my black friends and neighbors. This is not an intellectual experience alone – really feeling the pain of how my complacency has hurt others is the work. It makes me live with an apology that isn’t about guilt – it’s about feeling the sadness of taking my advantages for granted and seeing how those advantages can build fences that block away the suffering of others. It very practically asks me how I can live in a way that minimizes suffering for everyone.
It takes courage to feel and examine. It takes courage to correct where we miss the mark. These things are the pathway to transformation. Thank you for all the places you are doing this.