One by one last week the tiny bodies of 20 children were laid to rest, as well as the adult heroes who died trying to protect them. We won't soon forget the Sandy Hook school shootings. The pain runs straight to our nation's marrow. The process of mourning these victims of unspeakable violence stretches so far out, and for so long.
How to begin to understand such grief, whether in your own life or collectively as a citizen of this troubled country?
In 1997 I traveled to Dharmasala, India. My former wife Kathy and my sister-in-law Marilee had grown close to the Tibetan community that had resettled in Utah. Perhaps overly impressed with my status as a former Salt Lake City mayor, the Tibetans had arranged for us to meet with the Dalai Lama and to invite him to Utah.
I looked forward to meeting His Holiness much like any lucky tourist would. I sought no great religious or transformative experience. I admired the Dalai Lama's history as an expatriate from communist China and his reputation as a man of peace. I carried letters from Gov. Mike Leavitt and business leaders and other documents to formally invite the great leader to Utah.
I had no idea how deeply spiritual our visit would become. The meeting with His Holiness would rank as one of the most emotional and treasured moments of my life along with the births of my children, climbing high mountain peaks and other deeply personal experiences.
As we ambled along the streets of Dharmasala the morning of our appointment with His Holiness, we met by sheer coincidence a Utah couple. They had stayed for several days, hoping for some way to meet with the Dalai Lama. We offered to see if they might join us. After relaying passport numbers and other security information, they were granted permission to come along.
We entered the Dalai Lama's residence, each holding a white Buddhist blessing scarf. He placed the scarves around our necks and uttered a few blessing words. We sat on comfortable couches with the holy man, surrounded by a group of muscular monks. I surmised they were a security detachment. The Dalai Lama opened with small talk, his wit and iconic smile bringing resonate laughter from the guards. A group of designated laughers, I thought with some amusement.
We formally invited him to Utah. Then, suddenly, the formality dissolved. Looking intently at the couple that had joined us that morning, and with no visible cue from anyone he said, "You are sad."
Our new friends broke down. Through gentle sobs, they explained their young son had recently committed suicide. A pause hung in the air. The Dalai Lama simply waited. And waited.
As we muffled sobs, His Holiness slid across the couch and reached for the couple's faces. Grasping their cheeks, he pulled their faces next to his. He held them for perhaps a minute, an eternity for such an intimacy. And then he said softly, simply "sad." He offered no other words, no assurance of heaven, as we Westerners have come to expect when dissecting death. He explained nothing. There was no utterance of "time heals," no nicety that "God needed him elsewhere." Nothing.
The tears ceased. We took our leave.
Walking away on a little path amidst towering trees, we discussed the healing power of a human touch, of a simple word. There is goodness in letting the pain flow and of not explaining away another's grief. In allowing for "sad."
Our new friends acknowledged a clear recognition of their pain and loss. Now, they said, they could find the healing they sought.
Let us all feel this big Sad. Then we can act.
Ted Wilson was Salt Lake City mayor from 1976 to 1985. He is government affairs director for the Talisker Company. The Dalai Lama came to Utah in 2001.