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OUT OF LEFT FIELD: On #Chrissysentme and community care

Organizer Deb McIntosh shares a hug with Betty Lutz at Sunday night's healing vigil in Millennium Park. Photo by Terran Ambrosone.

It’s hard to explain to someone from a larger centre what grief looks like in a small town. A tragedy, in place like Castlegar, isn’t just a headline or a radio blurb about something bad happening to some random stranger. It’s not a situation where you can feel a heartbeat of sadness for someone you never knew, then dismiss it from your mind.

Both the blessing and the curse of living in a small community is that nothing happens in isolation. Whether it’s a joyous success or a miserable loss, it’s something we experience together. This is particularly true since the advent of social media.

If we don’t directly know/care for the person involved, then we know someone who does. There’s no such thing as six degrees of separation in a small town – we’re lucky if we can swing half a degree. When someone experiences a particular success (graduation, great job, lottery win, whatever), we all gleefully hit ‘likes this’ on the Facebook post and make a mental note to congratulate his/her people when we see them next. When someone goes missing, we muster up search teams and find them. When a family loses their home to a fire, or the food bank is running out of supplies, or an accident leaves one of our own disabled, we rally – we create Go-Fund-Me pages and donate, we race to the grocery store to stock food bank shelves, we bring meals, support and affection – whatever the situation warrants.

So when someone dies – especially if it’s unexpected – it’s a body blow to the community as a whole. Even if we don’t personally mourn the individual lost, we interact each day with people who are hurting terribly, we feel for them, we share their sadness, if not their grief.

And when we get a cluster of tragedies, as we have recently (and did at this same time last year) it becomes overwhelming.  Even just the bare minimum of empathy for our friends and neighbours becomes debilitating, almost crippling in its intensity – even to the point of having a physical impact (I remember saying, both this year and last, that the weight of grief had become so exhausting that just walking up the stairs seemed hard. It was like my limbs all-of-a-sudden weighed exponentially more).

That’s the downside of carrying the burden of an entire community’s pain.

The upside is that, in a city like ours, the load is lightened as more and more people choose to carry it with us – and they always, always do. When our hearts are heaviest, we’re buoyed by the gentle, loving warmth that is our due as members of this community.

I think that’s why the #Chrissysentme or #TellthemChrissysentyou phenomenon has meant so very much to me. “Tell them Chrissy sent you,” was not the brainchild of some marketing mastermind or political strategist. It was a simple, genuine sentence from a grieving family struggling to cope with an unthinkable loss while honouring their daughter. And it became, almost overnight, the battle cry of people around the world who choose hope, love and community over rage, blame and despair.

I expect (but never fail to appreciate) this in my little community … but to see it happen the world over? Wow.

I recently spent the better part of the wee hours messaging with a Mom who lost her young son to cancer, and I woke up grainy-eyed, inexpressibly sad, and weary down to my soul. I was driving down Columbia Avenue, and found my heart lift each time I saw, “#Chrissysentme” on a company sign or billboard – and it was everywhere. I watched our local elementary schools create food drives, a local artist create a raffle of his work to raise $10,000 for the food bank, a group of young adults cleaning garbage up along the highway … all using the #Chrissysentme hashtag. I Googled #Chrissysentme and #TellthemChrissysentyou and saw hundreds of similar examples from around the globe.

I think the perfect illustration of this is a letter The Source received from, quite literally, halfway around the world, which reads as follows:

“Can you please pass this onto Chrissy Archibald's family? I am a Londoner living in Auckland, NZ. Today I took my six-and seven-year-old children (who were born in London) into our local homeless shelter here in Auckland. We took food and clothes and chatted to a few people there, including a man named Vernon. We told them Chrissy sent us. It's hard to explain events such as those at London Bridge to children but I can show them that kindness and hope … through small actions such as this, we can improve our community and honour Chrissy.  I'm sorry for your loss and thank you for encouraging these acts of kindness.  Vicky.”

Last night’s Peace and Healing vigil was not just some hippy-dippy, Kumbaya-style feel-good exercise. It was a vitally important exercise in solidarity and togetherness, a conscious decision to embrace love, gratitude and community in the face of brutality and heartbreak and loss. It was an expression of support - and proof, for those who care to see it, that no one here has to cope with heartache alone.

Our community, the people who surround us, may not be able to protect us from our darkest hours, from those terrifying midnights of the soul – but they can light a small fire to bring a bit of warmth and light when we need it the most. And the fire burns very bright in Castlegar.