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Social Change and Unfelt Heartbreak

Kathy LeMay


Synopsis: For those of us in social change and human rights work, we often do not grieve. Instead we bury ourselves in the work and harden our hearts until one day we are burnt out. What would it look like if we excelled at grieving?

April 10, 2018 — 

"Secondary trauma: the stress resulting from helping or wanting to help a traumatized or suffering person."

 During a six-hour training of women social change activists, one of the participants who for years had worked at a food bank approached me and asked: "How do you handle it?", she asked. "The grief of this work. How do you handle it?"

 I had talked about my work in Bosnia, in post-Katrina New Orleans, at food banks and food pantries, for the rights of women and children.  "How do you handle it?"

Let yourself grieve.

“Maybe we don't have to carry the trauma with us. i don't know if this is true, but after thirty years of excellence I am willing to try. I'm interested to see what it might be like to make a habit out of grieving, to excel in grieving. It might be fascinating. It might be transformative.”

There were tears in her eyes and her voice shook. What I felt from her was this: "How am I supposed to keep handling it?" She shared that just before the training she had been at the food bank when a mother of four came in to shee if she could food for her children. The food bank welcomed her in and she said "let's get you shopping." The woman paused and said, "Don't you have a form you need me to fill?" "No" they said. "You're here and we're here for you.

That night she was at a gathering of supporters celebrating the food bank's success. One of the presenters shared how many more people they had served this year and how much food they had collected. There was a rousing applause. To me she said, "It's not a success to have our numbers go up. The success will be the day the numbers go down. "We held hands, took a deep breath, and said disparaging things about free market capitalists who've decided that numbers are the measure of success. She asked me again, "How do you handle it?"

As it turns out, I told her, quite poorly. 

For people who work in social services and change and societal transformation, we're not taught how to grieve. When we decide we want to make a difference and enter this world, we are fueled by hope and optimism. The world is our oyster. Then, after day in and day out, years in and years out, a few gains but what can feel like endless losses, the uphill battle begins to take it's toll. We organize, strategize, fundraise. We respond, react, create, serve. We dig deep, step up, fall down, get back up again. We make mistakes we wish we could erase. We learn and we move forward. We hope we've helped. We hope we've made a difference. We want to cry when it doesn't work. Mostly though, we get pissed off. Partially because those losses are infuriating and partly because we weren't taught to grieve. 

In this work, we're taugh invaluable lessons. One of them we're not taught: grieving. When social change happens we celebrate. When an atrocity happens, we act. We supress the heartbreak. It's what brought us to this work but we don't revisit it. It could derail us and there is too much work to be done. 

If you have to turn hungry people away from a food bank, you then work more hours to figure out how to raise more money and bring in food. In 1994, when I went to Bosnia to volunteer during the war, I handed money out to women whose husbands had been shot and killed and who were left with their infant babies. Women started to follow me and ask to help. They'd bring their friends. I ran out of money. I was told by the women I was volunteering for that I couldn't do that. There would be an endless line of women and children we could never help, they said. I felt ashamed for not knowing what to do or how to do it. I felt guilty I couldn't do more. I looked at the women after I had run out of money and I felt like i was going to fall to the ground. So I worked more hours. And I raised a lot of money. I never cried. 

How do you hold the grief?

Recently, I raised a multi-million dollar gift to help women and girl. On the same day I helped bring this gift in, my colleague asked me if she could share the story that was just relayed to her. Five 9 year old girls who- because of poverty were married off to adult men- got pregnant. Each tried to self-induce an abortion. Each of these girls died. All five of the nine year old girls died. You feel the deep sucker punch in your gut and your head starts to do this: What? It has to stop. What is going to make it stop? They must have been so scared. Oh no, their mothers. Do their mothers know? I didn't raise the money soon enough. I took a 3-day weekend because I was tired. Maybe if I hadn't take time off. You know your response isn't logical. You know you can't control it, fix, change it alone or overnight. For many of us though it is much easier to turn the blame inward. Blame is a friend of trauma. 

Arianna Huffington has written a book about the impact of not slowing down. It's called "Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom and Wonder". She is of course, correct. We are more effective when we rest and exercise good self-care. We are more balanced in our relationships when we breathe and take time off. It is understood. it's not always practiced. I am not sure why it is not always practiced by others, but I know why it is not practiced by me. 

They say that excellence is a habit. If this is true, I have excelled in not grieving. Not grieving became a pattern, an impring. Not grieving became a part of my activism and leadership. I acted. I did. I made things happen.  i wouldn't change this for anything. I would however have changed one small thing: I wouldn't have put up Fort Knox bullion depository firewalls in front of my heart. When you then want to feel or have to feel for your own health and well-being, you will need Sears heavy-duty power tool sto access the tears. And, it turns out the breaking open of the reserves isn't pretty. There's a lot of flying concrete and bits and shards that embed themselves in the people you love most. The tears are under there but you better be prepared for the digging. You might want to gift a HazMat suit to the person witnessing the unlocking. I have subjected more than one person to this side of me, my unfelt heartbreak. I cannot imagine how anyone of them has since stayed by my side. None of those times has been my finest hour. 

In her book "In the Body of the World", playwright and global activist Even Ensler talks about the cancer that riddled her body. In interviews about this book, she shares that after early abuse and 15 years of hearing the stories of women who had been raped from all walks of life, all over the world, that her body can't take anymore stories. She says she won't not listen to a story but she no longer actively seeks them out. Her body had absorbed all the trauma it could. 

Maybe we don't have to carry the trauma with us. i don't know if this is true, but after thirty years of excellence I am willing to try. I'm interested to see what it might be like to make a habit out of grieving, to excel in grieving. It might be fascinating. It might be transformative. It might heal. Because there is not a massage, movie or jar of bath salts that can ease is, there is just feeling it. For this beautiful women who has worked her life making sure people have enough to eat, I share these thoughts with you. Maybe together we can:

1. Feel every emotion. 

All of them. From hopeful to broken and the feelings between. We might even have a huge, unreasonable tantrum. It's unreasonable that people don't have enough food to eat. I think then it's ok to throw an unreasonable tantrum in return. And when we get to blame, anger, and judgement, let's give them a little room and let them go. The truth is behind them. 

2. Love bigger than we did yesterday. 

We just have to keep loving the hell out of everyone. Our trusted colleagues, people we like, people we don't like. Everyone. And when we foget, we'll remind each other that that love extends to us as well. 

3. Ask people to listen. Simply listen. 

Tell them you don't need to hear that you should take a break. Ask them if they can allow you to sound like a blabbering food. Last week I did this with my dear friend and then my sister. They were loving, kind and supportive. They didn't feel burdened. They didn't feel like I was complaining. Their kindness helped the dam to break. 

For those of you who have bravely mastered this road, thank you for paving the path. I am trying to catch up. I'll be in this work everyday with you. I'll just be holding a few extra kleenex.

*Originally posted on*

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