Talking about Grief

When You Cannot Bear to be a Witness …

Kathy Vergel

“For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.” - Elie Wiesel

As I popped onto Facebook briefly on Tuesday, I learned about the chemical attack that took place in Syria. This was the first I had heard of an attack. Scrolling through my feed, there it was. I was confronted with the absolute carnage of it all – videos of people writhing in pain, people gasping for air, dying, many of them children. It was only a few seconds before I started crying, and shortly after that, short of breath. My asthma had been triggered so I put my phone down.

At that point I didn’t know any of the details, save the basic ones. I didn’t want to know any details. I didn’t want to see any more pictures. I wanted (and still do) to cocoon myself in the safety of my insular life. I wanted to go about my day, go to work, play with my kids and relish in the mundaneness of my routines. But I knew this was wrong. I knew the very thought of this was indicative of my privilege. This is a question I’ve struggled with before, and am struggling with now: How can I bear witness, when I cannot bear to be a witness? When the pain of seeing is too great?

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I’m trying to find a boundary which feels right to me; not a fixed border but a fluid one. There is grief and pain and suffering in the world, and we cannot turn a blind eye to it, but the truth is that sometimes it is impossibly difficult to hold it in your gaze. Sometimes you need to take a moment to regroup, to take care of yourself. The problem is, while you are regrouping, the suffering does not stop; the carnage does not cease. As an empath, I am drawn to people and causes and try to help in whatever way – big or small – that I am able, which explains the work that I do. However, my personal challenge is – and has always been -- not to let others’ suffering absorb me. A facebook friend of mine wrote of the need for self care by making a relay race analogy – we are a team, and when one of us needs a break, we pass the baton on to the next person who can shoulder the responsibility of running the next leg of the race while providing a time for rest to the others. We do this. We don’t quit the race.

At Imagine, we talk about bearing witness, and the importance of staying and being with the bereaved, having them tell their stories so that they can be heard – and so that they feel heard and seen.  But what of the atrocities unfolding now? How do we bear witness so that the victims are not erased and their stories lost?  So we can provide help and assistance and hold any perpetrators to account? So that history does not repeat itself? How do we bear witness while caring for ourselves?

In her book, “Disappearing Acts: Spectacles of Gender and Nationalism in Argentina’s Dirty War,” Diana Taylor coins the term “percepticide” to explain the phenomenon of intentionally turning one’s gaze away from violence and consciously choosing to “un-see” or acknowledge it. In this way, percepticide is the polar opposite of bearing witness.  Bearing witness does not mean that you cannot at times, look away. It also does not mean that you must shoulder the entirety of the responsibility of listening and holding space for the bereaved. It does mean that we show up and acknowledge, allow ourselves to be open and vulnerable, and sometimes scared and uncomfortable. There is no way to “sanitize” the images on the news of the last couple of days. No amount of self-care and respite will make that more palatable or less horrifying. Similarly, on a micro-level, there is no amount of “being there” that will make a grieving person feel better, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t show up.

I feel the need for self-care acutely during times like these, and I feel embarrassed even admitting my need for care when so many are in the thick of their suffering and/or directly impacted by violence. Nonetheless, that’s the truth. At times, self-care for me has been as easy as declaring a moratorium on watching the news and/or social media. The obvious downside to this is that then you may be unaware of important events and information.  That being said, obsessing over the same news items that are available on a 24 hour loop on various networks and news sites, does little to inform more, but much to exacerbate and aggravate.

I’m tempted to declare a news moratorium again, but I know for me, that I can’t. For me, that doesn’t seem like a responsible or tenable position to hold. I will, however, strictly limit how much news I’m consuming, how much I’m on social media and exposed to images I don’t want to see, but know are important to be aware of. I will bear witness in my own way and allow myself to be moved to act in whatever way my witnessing calls me to act. I encourage you to do the same.

In need of grief support, contact us.

Imagine is a free year-round children’s grief support center that serves NJ children age 3-18 and young adults 18-30 who are grieving the death of a parent or sibling, or who are living with a parent of sibling with a life-altering illness. Imagine also provides grief education and training for thousands of teachers, parents, coaches, youth and other adults annually.  



The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of or anyone who works for is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer.

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