Public and private grief


One of the things that strikes me is America seems to have a fascination with memorials and ceremonies honoring the dead.

There are memorials for the various major wars, there is a memorial built for the Oklahoma City bombing, for the Lockerbie disaster, and there is the present bitter argument over the proposed memorial at the site of the World Trade Center. But there is more to it than physical memorials. There are also memorial ceremonies held on the anniversaries of these events, complete with flags, prayers, political leaders, speeches, and media coverage.

Has it always been like this or is this a relatively new phenomenon? I ask because this extended public and organized brooding on tragedy seems strange to me. In my experience growing up in Sri Lanka, after a major disaster, people tend to quickly clear up the mess and move on. There are some memorials, but they tend to be for dead political figures and are built by their immediate families or their political supporters. The idea of public memorializing is not widespread.

Of course, the family and friends of people lost to tragedies feel grief, and this is a universal phenomenon, transcending national and cultural boundaries. It is perfectly natural for such people to feel a sense of sadness and loss when an anniversary date comes around, reminding them of those who are no longer part of their lives. The personal columns of newspaper in Sri Lanka are filled, like they are here, with the sad stories of loss, some from many, many years ago.

But I wonder how much of this memorializing and solemnity is widespread among people who do not suffer a direct personal loss. At each anniversary of 9/11, for example, the media solemnly report that the whole nation ‘paused in grief’ or something like that. But among the people I know and work with, no one talks about the events on the anniversaries. Are we a particularly callous group of people, or is my experience shared by others? Of course, people may reflect on the events on those days but how much of that is media inspired, because the newspapers and radio and TV keep talking about it? If the media ignored these anniversaries, would ordinary people give these anniversaries more than a passing thought? How many people feel a sense of grief or sorrow on the anniversaries of disasters that did not affect them personally?

In Sri Lanka, the recent tsunami killed about 40,000 people in a matter of minutes. It is the worst single disaster in country that has known a lot of tragedies, both natural and human-caused. Like disasters everywhere, it brought out the best in people as they overlooked ethnic, religious, and linguistic barriers and joined in the massive relief efforts, helping total strangers using whatever means at their disposal.

And yet, on my recent visit, I did not hear of any plans for a public tsunami memorial. I am fairly certain that if anyone proposed it, people would (I think rightly) argue that the money would be better spent on relief for the victims of the disaster rather than on something symbolic.

This made me wonder about the following: while private grief is a universal emotion, I wonder if public grief is a luxury that only the developed world can afford to indulge in. In countries where the struggle of day-to-day living takes most of one’s energy, is grief a precious commodity that people can expend only on the loss of their nearest and dearest, except in the immediate aftermath of a major tragedy?

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