What was your reaction to the shootings last week at the elementary school? If you were like me, you probably felt a combination of shock, sadness, and anger. Shock at the scale of the carnage and the age of most of the victims, sadness at the thought of the terrible grief that the loved ones of the victims must be feeling, and anger at the person who did such an awful thing.
What I did not feel was grief. Grief is something that one feels when one knows the victim and the sense of loss is personal, and the closer the relationship, the greater the grief. But I have noticed a trend in which the reactions to such events are becoming nationalized, as if we all vicariously suffered the way that the people of the community directly hit suffered, with people saying things like “We are all (insert the name of the location where the tragedy occurred) now.”
No, we are not all of that same place and there is no way we can be. I am linking once again to an excellent essay by Rosa Brooks in 2007 in the wake of the mass shootings at Virginia Tech, where she wondered why it is that these days everyone wants to act as if they too have suffered a bereavement.
Did you feel sad when you heard the news? Did you ponder, however fleetingly, the mystery of mortality? If so, don’t just go on with your ordinary life as if nothing has happened to disrupt it (even though nothing has happened to disrupt it). Honor your grief! Attend a candlelight vigil, post a poignant message on one of MySpace’s Virginia Tech memorial pages and please, seek trauma counseling as soon as possible.
Convincing ourselves that we’ve been vicariously traumatized by the pain of strangers has become a cherished national pastime. Thus, the Washington Post this week accompanied online stories about the shooting with a clickable sidebar, “Where to Find Support” — apparently on the assumption that the mere experience of glancing at articles about the tragedy would be so emotionally devastating that readers would require trained therapists.
There’s something fraudulent about this eagerness to latch onto the grief of others and embrace the idea that we, too, have been victimized. This trivializes the pain felt by those who have actually lost something and pathologizes normal reactions to tragedy. Empathy is good, but feeling shocked and saddened by the shootings doesn’t make us traumatized or special — these feelings make us normal.
My children were in college during the time of the shootings at Virginia Tech and other college campuses. Since the events did not take place on their particular campuses, it never crossed my mind to call them to see if they were ok and they did not expect it either. When we did speak at some point, they said they were surprised at the number of parents of other students that had called to make sure their children were fine.
Maybe I am heartless or maybe our family is somewhat more phlegmatic than others but it all seems a bit much to me. We have not suffered like the friends and family of the people who were killed and it somehow seems insulting to them to act as if we had.