On the final night of the Democratic National Convention, we watched Khizr Khan speak of his son’s death, a hero’s death, in service to his country. The emotional journey Khizr took us on was profound, and raw. He spoke as a man dealing with palpable grief, but with pride and dignity and love. By his side his wife, Ghalaza Khan, stood silent. Her face was difficult to fathom, because even in its stillness it spoke volumes of hurt, desperation, and the weight of losing a child.
Whether or not you think American soldiers should have been in Iraq, you listen to a grieving parent. Whether or not you think Muslims are capable of being patriotic America citizens, you listen to a grieving parent. Whether or not you have ever lost anything, ever sacrificed anything, ever experienced an all encompassing grief, you listen.
Donald Trump couldn’t do even that. He couldn’t be the least important person in the room. He couldn’t empathize with another human being.
If he had only been a manipulative jerk, he might have said, “Mr. Khan is very upset, and I take his accusations as the emotional outburst of a grieving parent.” A response like that would have proved that he was a terrible person, but still, a person. Instead, Donald Trump proved he isn’t a person at all. He proved he lacked a single shred of humanity with his seamless shift from self praise to racist sniping at a grieving mother.
“I’d like to hear his wife say something.” That’s what Trump added to the conversation.
I’ve seen these faces, heard this incongruous medley of emotion before, when sitting by the side of friends who have lost a child. Ghalaza’s face, stoic and resolutely pointed towards a sea of onlookers, rather than a twenty foot image of her dead son’s smiling face, was that of a quintessential grieving parent. As a mother, she accepted the responsibility to keep her son alive, and as a parent, cracks fractured her psyche from the idea that in some way, she had failed. She was proud of him, unwaveringly, despite the decades of mothering snatched from her. And she would forever wonder if there could have been anything she might have done differently to change his fate.
The thing about grief is, those Kübler-Ross stages? Those classic, comfortable, oft recited stages of grief? They aren’t a ladder you climb from Denial on the bottom to Acceptance on top, where suddenly you’re free from the burden of grief. It’s more like every day of your life you’re dealt a hand from a deck of cards, each one a way to feel. And some of those cards are Bargaining, and some are Denial, and some, more and more as time goes on, are Acceptance.
Every day you play your hand, and if you’re lucky, you get better at playing the cards you’re dealt. And even if it feels like you suck at this miserable game nobody wants to play, you can’t stop. Grief is your life. Forever. You just get better at playing the game as you go along.
So when speaking with friends who lost a child, when I’ve brought them meals in their moments of need, or watched them championing their child’s cause years after that child has left this world, or followed their lead in carefully avoiding mention of a son or daughter when they are too raw, when I’ve watched them struggle with birthdays and family vacations and holidays and milestones missed, I have done the only thing one can do in this situation.
Here’s the thing about listening- it can be hard. Listening, to anybody, can fill you with an urge to replace their voice with your own, to replace their hurt with more comfortable feelings. To put the burden of listening on anyone else but you. To listen is to accept that you are not the most important person in the room. It’s to accept that you have a place in the world that is not at its center. It is to acknowledge and respect the experience of another living soul, and honor them, and cherish them, and understand them. If only for the course of an anecdote.
When somebody opens up about their grief, it is a glimpse into the very nature of what it means to be human. It is your duty to listen, if only to selfishly say to yourself, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”
Like many Americans, Donald Trump also saw Khizr Khan’s speech, during which Mr.Khan brandished his pocket copy of the American Constitution at Donald Trump, asking if he had read this document that defines America; and Khizr Khan said seven words that seared themselves into the heart of anyone watching who had one at all- “You have sacrificed nothing, and no one.”
Maybe this wasn’t true. Maybe Donald Trump has sacrificed something, anything, to the country he wants to lead. But when a grieving parent says to you, “You cannot comprehend my grief,” they are right. You will never know what they lost. You can’t know the complexities of this frozen relationship. You can’t know what future was stolen, what memories forever tainted, what promises left broken by default. If a grieving parent says something terrible to you in their grief, something cruel or thoughtless, you listen and you accept it. You don’t have to agree with them, or understand them, but you must respect their pain.
But Donald Trump has no such respect for anyone’s humanity. When the immortal words, “You have sacrificed nothing, and no one,” were lobbed in Donald Trump’s direction, he could not listen. He could not acknowledge the terrible weight of a parent’s grief. Instead, he attacked the Kahn family. He made Islamaphobic remarks that Khizr may not have permitted his grieving wife to speak. Donald Trump said he HAD sacrificed, by working hard, and that he made lots of money because of his “sacrifice.”
What Donald Trump spoke of, so callously and dismissively, was not sacrifice. It was an investment he made with the expectation of reaping a reward.
Sacrifice is when you give something away. When you give it to something you believe is greater than you, and expect nothing in return. When you lose something precious to you, forever, because something more important than you needed it more. Khizr and Ghazala gave their son to America. And their son, Captain Humayan Khan, gave his life to save his fellow soldiers, in the name of the country he loved.
With a single breath, Donald Trump equated losing a son with spending long nights at the office for monetary reward.
With a single breath, Donald Trump proved he is not worth the dust on the boots of soldiers like Captain Humayan Khan.
With a single breath, Donald Trump proved that oxygen is wasted by allowing him to speak his foulness into the ears of parents like Ghazala and Khizr Khan.
With a single breath, Donald Trump proved he is unfit for any office, for any position in human society, let alone the most powerful office in the world.
And while he shouts his filth into the world, we must turn our backs and shut our ears to him. We must stand with families like the Khans, to hurt with them, to sit with them through their grief, to bring them casseroles and photo collages and share in happy memories of their lost children, and most importantly, to listen.
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