Grief and Distance – Responding to the World Wide Web

In our digital age it’s not always easy to register an appropriate or meaningful emotional response when sad or difficult news reaches us from far-off places, whether through our social media feeds or on the digital news outlets we frequent. In the face of such news we will certainly feel something – a sense of sadness or empathetic grief. But we may also experience surprise, or perhaps even guilt that our feelings are not as strong as seems warranted by some significant tragedy or sorrow. Our distance from the event in question, or the fact that we receive a steady stream of such news, means that our emotional responses are not as personal or deep as seems appropriate. This, at least, has been my experience with such news. Perhaps it is not only mine.

Last week, one such difficult event was in the news – we heard of a horrific house fire in the town of Kane, Manitoba, a fire that killed four young brothers. The boys were four of eight children that lived in the farmhouse with their parents. There is no way to describe this than as an utterly unimaginable and terrible loss for the parents and for siblings and neighbours and friends. To bring some deeper personality to the news, the CBC shared the names of the four boys: Bobby, Timmy, Danny, and Henry. Their family name is Froese.

On the day that I read this news story, last Thursday, I came back to it a number of times in my own thoughts. I came back to the house fire, to the reality of loss it represented, and to the whole question of our personal response to this kind of distant, difficult news. Obviously this news story isn’t really about me; it’s about this family. And yet we wrestle with our response to such suffering in the impersonal yet personal realm of the world wide web.

FullSizeRenderOn Thursday afternoon this all came to me in a decisive way when I walked into a room at the Art Gallery of Ontario that holds a series of paintings by the Canadian artist William Kurelek. There on the wall was this piece, entitled: A Ukrainian Canadian Prairie Tragedy. It was painted in 1974. All I can say about the experience of seeing this particular painting, on that particular day, was that it confronted me – confronted me again with the realities of loss and grief and suffering so real to a family in Manitoba.

The image is of a house and barn burned to the ground. There are buckets and pitchforks and ladders and horse-drawn wagons in the painting, all of which were presumably rushed to the scene in order to try and fight the fire. In the foreground there is a couple standing on the road, arm in arm, with grief written in their posture, before the remnants of their house. In the background are the grain silos, so emblematic of the prairie landscape.

Kurelek spent some of his younger years in both Alberta and Manitoba, and the reality of a house fire – and all of the grief and pain and loss that accompanies it –seems etched into the lives of prairie dwellers. Between 1974 and 2014, how many such fires have taken place – how many such lives have been devastated?

Being confronted by this painting and all that it represents, I was also somehow reminded that one of the ways I might respond meaningfully to such tragedies, even at an emotional and personal distance, is through prayer. The Spirit can prompt us in a variety of ways – and through this painting the Spirit prompted me to the rather obvious possibility that I wasn’t seeing. The possibility of prayer.

The pain and loss painted on a canvas became an invitation for me to pray over the very real circumstances of a family experiencing profound loss. Such prayer cannot resolve the emotional tensions inherent in our digital-media-saturated world, and obviously we cannot pray fully over every such difficult news story. But such prayerfulness in certain circumstances can at least be the beginning of a faithful and loving response. Such a response can also perhaps lead us further into an appropriate sense of our relation to the wide and difficult world we all now, necessarily inhabit.

God of compassion and grace, each of us has known suffering in our lives. We know the reality of loss and sadness and anxiety and fear. We know what it is to mourn the death of loved ones. We know what it is to reach out for relief and reprieve, seeking comfort and peace by your Spirit, and sometimes continuing to feel the absence of such comfort and peace, even having reached out in prayer.

O God of mercy and love, the wide world is full of those who are wounded – and their woundedness floods across the screens of our smartphones and laptops and tablets. There is the suffering of our own friends and acquaintances on our social media feeds, but also the suffering of strangers in towns we have not visited and countries far beyond our reach. We don’t always know how to respond faithfully in the face of their loss and abandonment.

O loving and faithful God, out of my own experience of suffering, draw me into hopeful conversation with you, for others. Into hopeful conversation with Jesus, who knows what it is to weep at the graveside of a friend.

Bless, I pray, the Froese family in Kane, Manitoba. Surround them by your strong and persistent Spirit – your Spirit of peace and love. Bless the mother and father of these boys – bless also the siblings of Bobby, Timmy, Danny, and Henry. In their anguish and their sadness and their loss and perhaps also their guilt, may they discern something of your nearness to them, and of the hope that is ours in Christ. Their experience is beyond what I can comprehend – but you know them, O God. You number the hairs of their heads. You know what they need. You know the path of healing that each might walk in his or her own way. Show your face. Extend mercy.

I offer this prayer in the name of the risen one who accompanies us, even in the valley of the shadow of death; this one who is Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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