When my Dad died, I was truly devastated and bereft. From the first breath I had ever taken on this earth, my Dad had been alive. He showed me unconditional love. He taught me by example the value of hard work, silence being golden, staying calm, keeping our sense of humor, showing curiosity instead of judgment, avoiding gossip, and enjoying nature. Being true to myself, being trustworthy and loyal, having a right to my opinion while allowing others theirs, these are among the precious gifts my Dad gave me. He wasn’t perfect, and neither am I. And we didn’t always understand each other, because our lives were so different. But we loved each other, and I miss him still. My experience with him is a defining feature of my character, my identity, and who I am in the world.
When he died, I was in disbelief. I was in grief. I was in mourning.
When I told people that my Dad had died, not all my friends shared my personal experience with their own fathers. Many had both their parents still living. Some had never had a father figure. Others, a violent or abusive parent. Some had a father they loved, but didn’t respect, or a father they could respect, but not really love in a comfortable way. My Dad was an immigrant with a sixth grade education from a small, indigenous population in his part of the world, which also made him different from my friends’ fathers. With all of this, friends processed my mourning in different ways based on their understanding and their experience. But no one tried to erase my experience. No one got defensive or accusatory.
Instead, they were able to meet me where I was at. I remember to this day the comforting sense of not being alone. People repeatedly said they were sorry for my loss and for my suffering. Not because they had caused it – my Dad died of natural causes. But they were sorry for my suffering and wanted to acknowledge it. Some made offers of practical support, but most simply invited me to say what I might need from them, now or later. They were able to offer their support, no matter how much or how little my personal experience intersected with their own. They were able to walk with me, and demonstrate compassion for my suffering in my time of need.
One thing never happened: When I said my Dad died, not one single person felt called upon to say, “All Dads die!” No one hinted that perhaps I was complicit in the fact that he had predeceased me. Instead, they did their best to walk with me in my experience, without trying to argue me out of it, center themselves, or tell me why I was wrong. And that was incredibly healing and helpful. So let’s consider Black Lives Matter.
I am certainly not comparing the death of an aging parent to centuries of oppression! Just suggesting that something is wrong, and needs to be addressed, for those who feel a gut need to react with defensiveness to Black Lives Matter. Step back, and consider. I can be sorry for systemic oppression, without defensively adding that it’s not my fault. I can say yes, Black lives absolutely matter, without feeling the slightest need to add that all lives matter or bring up any members of my racial heritage. Can you imagine if when you told friends that you lost a loved one, they responded by saying so what, everybody dies? How heartless, how unnecessary! It should come quite naturally to say, I am sorry for your grief and your suffering. Please let me know how I can help.
As for social injustices that impact us so unevenly, weighted down by centuries of history, with ongoing consequences and policies embedded in the very fabric of our society, I can be with my fellow humans without telling those most directly impacted how they should feel, what their experiences are, or what they need to do. I have no need to personalize it, center myself, or try to erase their individual or collective experiences. Instead, I seek to acknowledge those most directly harmed, walk with them as far as I am able, educate myself, follow their guidance in offering my heartfelt support, and do my part to achieve the kind of changes that are long overdue. To me, it seems the only decent response.