Communal Grief: How Do We Heal?

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Hi Everyone,

As a lifelong spiritual seeker I strive to listen without judging, to give without expecting, to look for blessings in every situation and to use my talents to make a difference in the world. Prayer is a huge part of my spiritual practice; as an artist and writer I’ve developed a morning journaling practice which allows me to pray by putting pen to paper.

My morning journaling practice usually helps me stay grounded in gratitude and maintain my equilibrium. But right now, like many of us, I am struggling to make sense of things that don’t make sense.

I awoke on Saturday to a text from my daughter: “You should check the news.”

Another mass shooting. 

I first wrote about communal grief in June of 2016, after the Pulse massacre. It was heart-wrenching, and I never dreamed I would write about a mass shooting here in Orlando a year later. This time I knew one of the victims, which made it unimaginably difficult to comprehend. Four months later a gunman opened fire from the 32nd floor of a Las Vegas hotel during a country music concert killing more than 50 people. The following month 26 people were shot to death at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, TX. In February of 2018 17 people died at the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL. This weekend a gunman entered the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill, PA, and opened fire, killing 11 people and wounding 6 more, including four police officers. I have friends whose loved ones died in both the Parkland and Squirrel Hill massacres; my heart breaks for them. It breaks for all of us. There are no words…


There are no words to describe the collective horror we all felt upon learning of another senseless, tragic shooting. It’s hard not to feel numb under these circumstances. Heartsick. Devastated. Hopeless. How can you keep a positive outlook when your very foundations have been shaken? How do you grapple with the fact that many parents don’t feel safe sending their children to school? That we need armed guards at places of worship? How do you build community when so many people look at the world as “us” versus “them”? How do you keep hope in your heart during challenging times like this?

It may be easy to think “I’m only one person; there isn’t anything I can do.” But I believe that there is more that unites us than that divides us. I am just one person, and I cannot do everything– but I can try to shift the conversation from despair to hope, and I can invite people to join me in a quest to heal hearts.I think the power of collective positivity is real, and while we may not be able to stop shootings, we can work together to bring hope and healing to individuals and communities that are dealing with devastating loss. Will you help me shift the conversation from despair to hope? 

Despair damps out the light; during times like this it is essential that we BECOME the light.

One of the things I’ve learned from doing grief support work is that people want to do something to help– even when they don’t personally know someone involved in a communal tragedy such as the one we experienced Saturday. And it is in helping others that we help ourselves heal.

Seven months ago I was invited to be part of a National Grief Relief team that went to Parkland, Florida to bring hope and healing to their shattered. My role was to come up with a remembrance project/art installation that the entire Marjory Stoneman Douglas community could help make. One of the challenges when creating a community art installation is to find a project that allows everyone to participate, no matter what their artistic ability. I therefore try to develop projects with individual components that can be combined into an aesthetically pleasing, meaningful finished piece. For Parkland, I thought a Tree of Life would be a fitting memorial, and drew a 6’ tall tree with 17 branches (one for each of the people who were killed) and designed a series of leaves for the community to decorate. Here’s a photo of some of the leaves I took to Parkland in May:

I’m saddened that there is need for another tree with 17 branches; but glad that I have something I can offer to help make a difference in the world. Tonight (Tuesday, October 30th), there will be an interfaith vigil in Orlando and everyone attending will be invited to make a leaf for the tree. If you live in Central Florida, I hope you’ll  join me at the Congregation of Reform Judaism at 7:00. Here is a flyer about the Tree of Life we’ll be creating:

For those who are not in Central Florida– I invite you to send your prayers and good wishes on a 3.5″ leaf and I will add your leaf to the tree.

Click below to download your free PDF of the remembrance leaves.


I invite you to join me in creating a forest of beautiful trees filled with meaningful messages. I am offering to help you make a Tree of Life in your community. Please e-mail me at [email protected] and I will send you the schematic for the tree and sun, and pdfs of the leaves that you can print (in color or black and white) and distribute. You can paint the tree or create a three dimensional one out of wood or MDF board. Feel free to share this idea with any organization in your home town which might be interested in showcasing this special project. A school, synagogue, church, mosque, community center, club or similar facility may be interested. Creating a hands-on remembrance is a great way to bring the community together and help healing begin.

Leaves can include prayers, good wishes, meaningful words, commemorative messages. The tree I’m working on will have a mix of many types of leaves. Here’s a photo of my ‘test’ leaves for tonight:

May we be blessed with the courage to not let anguish become despair; to keep hope in our hearts and to use our creative talents to make a difference for others. I want to close tonight with a page from one of my recent Morning Journals:

Stay Zenspired,


8 thoughts on “Communal Grief: How Do We Heal?”

  1. This is beautiful Joanne. I live maybe 10 mins from Squirrel Hill. I used to drive tight by the synagogue where Saturday’s shooting took place on my way to work. It’s a beautiful synagogue. My heart broke Saturday morning when I heard what had happened. I am not Jewish. But I have friends who are. As a Christian I do not understand this hatred towards Gods people. God does not tell us to love only people like ourselves. We are to love everyone!

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us!

  2. JoAnne, what a blessing you are to others. The tree of Life is a wonderful idea. The world has become an angry, loud place. We seem lost and wander in the desert of our own making, shouting in the wind. Each person CAN make a difference, and we start by helping one person, and then moving to the next. We don’t have to change the world, but to the one person being helped, it means the world to them.

  3. Thank you Joanne, I write this alongside my sister’s hospital bed in a hospice in Canada. Grief crosses all differences, uniting us in our shared human heart. We pray for peace, Elizabeth

  4. There are no words…
    May their memories be a blessing.

    My synagogue will be taking part in the National Shabbat of Healing Saturday.
    I may try to make a tree – or at the very least leaves.

    Thank you!

  5. Dear Joanne,
    Thank you for guiding those of us who feel helpless in yet another senseless massacre. Your wisdom and outreach are so very greatly appreciated.
    Love and God bless.

  6. Sometimes i feel as speechless by acts of great kindness and insight. I am very awed by the way you have risen to help those in this tragic time. this is wonderful

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