Dear President Biden,
Remember how your predecessor had to carry that little piece of paper with stock condolence phrases when he met with survivors, family members, and friends associated with the Marjory Stoneman Douglass school shooting? I’m not sure he even used the cheat sheet, which I’m guessing someone wrote for him, but as pathetic as it was, you might want to take the basic idea to heart. You see, he – or someone on his staff – recognized that he didn’t know how to respond to the grief and anger he was about to encounter. Yes, he is a self-absorbed evil poser who has the empathy of a rock, but he at least had the presence of mind to get that he didn’t get what was needed from him. It didn’t actually help him pull off a reasonable meeting and he looked the fool sitting there clutching his little list of grief buster notes as though it might save him, but he did sort of, kind of try.
What I’m suggesting here is that you need to do something similar from here on out when the next horrible loss of life happens and you’re called on to be the Consoler in Chief. If you’re not going to come off sounding and seeming (and really, being) a self-absorbed lout who can only trot out his own grief bucket and throw it on the grieving people in front of him, you have to do this work. Essentially, you must actually pause before you go into meetings with grieving people to consider what they are grieving and how your personal grief does or does not match theirs. Grief is not a one-size fits all sort of thing.
I know you’ve endured painful, wrenching losses and no one can ever say that you don’t know grief intimately. You do. But you seem to have forgotten some critical features of grief and loss, including that when they’re fresh, people don’t want to hear other people’s grief stories or how they understand what they’re going through. And they especially don’t want to hear this stuff when they feel strongly that the person who is trying to console them caused the loss, and thus the grief, in the first place. In situations like this (and frankly in most horrible loss situations) what’s needed are gentle open ended questions about how they’re doing, something they will miss about their person, what they want you to know – this sort of thing.
You’re also not supposed to check your watch repeatedly. Bad, bad idea.
My guess is that you were freaked the hell out about having one or more of those military families, many of whom surely didn’t vote for you, seriously lose it on you there in the room so you filled the airspace with your own history with grief rather than risk their raw emotion. I’m sure you were also worried about what Ida was doing and how the rest of the evacuation from Kabul was going and how the COVID numbers were looking and so on and so on and so on…. I’m betting that you didn’t want the whole thing prolonged with major wailing and gnashing of teeth. And I’m guessing that you’re exhausted and didn’t have the emotional reserves on board to face the pregnant widow who just lost her husband on the Kabul airport tarmac.
You were not going to get a pass in that room no matter what you did or how well you did it, but you also didn’t have to make things worse and I’m afraid you did. You had to meet with them just like you had to follow through on the withdrawal from Afghanistan, but you had choices about how you did both of those grim tasks and it sure seems to me that you didn’t bring your best.
We need you to do better.
May we all be safe.
May we all be willing and able to let people have their grief.
May we all be strong enough to hold what needs holding.
May we all accept that we can almost always do better.