Overdoing public grief

On the radio yesterday morning I heard a report on camps designed specifically for children who have recently had a bereavement in the family to attend with other similarly situated children. The camps will be staffed by people trained in grief counseling and the children will be encouraged to express their feelings through artwork and conversations and even cry.

Although I am not a psychologist, I must say that the story made me uncomfortable. Is it really a good idea to take a child who has just lost a parent, grandparent, or sibling and put them together with other grieving children so that they are surrounded by grief all the time? My impulse would be to keep the child at home, play games with them, send them out to the movies, or to encourage them to play with other children. Their sense of loss must be palpable and surely what they need is relief and distraction from it, not reinforcement.

For example, I think it is great that most people use the Memorial Day holiday to have picnics and barbecues, and strongly disagree with those pious scolds who every year complain that people are not treating the day with appropriate solemnity. What d they want people to do? Visit graveyards? Fast? Pray? Listen to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings on an endless loop?

It seems to me that nowadays rather than encouraging people to be stoic in the face of tragedy, they are now being encouraged to wallow in public grief. We seem to be telling people that what needs to be done is to drag out the grieving process and make their emotions public. Is this a good thing?

Take for example tragedies where many people die, such as the events of 9/11 or the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City or the Virginia Tech shooting. Immediately calls go out to build a memorial for the dead, which is usually followed by squabbles as to the appropriate design. And on every anniversary the events are commemorated with all kinds of symbolic events, such as the beating of drums or the pealing of bells once for each death, accompanied by the reading of the names of the victims. Even now, fifteen years after the event, the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing is publicly commemorated this way.

It has now got to the stage where following the (unfortunately frequent) senseless killing of several people by a deranged shooter, there are calls for a memorial to be set up to commemorate the victims. When I drive on the highways I often see small private memorials by the roadside, presumably to commemorate a highway fatality. If we are not careful, we will become a nation of memorials.

I don’t understand this need to memorialize. They say that time heals all wounds. I believe that to be true but how can time do its work if every year people pick at the scab by reliving once again in a big ceremony the events surrounding the tragedy?

Maybe I am weird but to me grief is something that one deals with privately. If I had had someone close to me die in a tragic and untimely way, the last thing I would want is to have other people, total strangers, make a big fuss on the anniversary, reminding me of it over and over again, and obliging me to act grief-stricken on schedule on that day. As anyone knows, feelings of sadness at the loss of a loved one hit randomly, triggered by inconsequential things. For all other people know, I might be feeling pretty good on the anniversary and now have to put on a show of sadness for the public which would make me feel hypocritical, which is worse than feeling genuine grief.

What has happened is that the grief counseling industry has taken over and decided that we need to show our emotions with a great outpouring of feelings. The media is a major culprit as can be seen in the way that they treat deaths of public figures as events of great sadness and public importance, when they are not. The recent coverage of the deaths and funerals of Michael Jackson, President Ford, Tim Russert, etc. was way over the top. As a result, it seems that we should all feel sadness on demand.

Even people who have the most tenuous of connections to the events now seem to feel that they need grief counseling too. Rosa Brooks commented on this phenomenon in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings:

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.

The death of Michael Jackson produced vast hordes of people who did not know him in the slightest but acted (at least in front of TV and news reporters) as if they had been devastated by the loss of an immediate family member or close friend. When John Lennon was murdered (the equivalent of Michael Jackson’s death for my generation) I recall being shocked at the murder and sad at his untimely end but I did not feel grief, did not mourn, and definitely did not need counseling despite my close identification with Beatles music.

Everyone now seems to have even internalized the jargon of grief counselors, with ordinary people now glibly talking about the need to ‘allow for the healing process to take place’ in order to ‘bring about closure’, as if one can end one’s sense of loss tidily at a scheduled time by going through some prescribed set of rituals.

Each person comes to terms with grief and loss in their own way. In my case, I tend to busy myself with mindless activities, such as cleaning out the garage and closets, sorting papers, watching TV, and so on. I let the minutiae of daily life consume my thoughts, except for brief moments when I let sad memories enter in small doses that I can deal with privately and alone. I don’t want to talk about my loss, and I definitely do not want other people encouraging me to ‘let my emotions show’. I just want to be left alone.

I would hate to have memorial activities on each anniversary that force me to confront, once again, the fact that they have died. I do not even visit my parents’ graves and do not do anything special on the days of their birth or death. Why force myself to think about them? I think about them often at random moments and that for me is enough.

I am sure that other people react differently to tragedies in their lives. That is my point. We all react differently. Each of us deals with grief in our own way and should be allowed to go it alone and not feel obliged to conform to other people’s expectations of how we should feel and behave. The rest of us should simply make room for bereaved people to respond in any way that works for them. Public memorializing tends to impose one set of expectations on everyone and serve no purpose that I can see, except to allow public and elected figures to grandstand.

POST SCRIPT: Get religion! Waste time!


  1. Scott says

    Ironic that this should appear on the day of my father-in-law’s funeral… I often wonder if Israel, probably the target of more terrorist attacks than any other nation, has a memorial for every attack. I doubt it, since the memorials would displace the more useful structures. I’ve always thought that a better memorial for someone, or for a public tragedy, is something useful, such as a tree for a person, or in the case of 9/11, a new World Trade Center, which would prove that despite such tragedy, life goes on.

    Thank you for this post.

  2. says

    Of course grief is a personal thing and the best way to handle it varies from person to person. I think though there is value in teaching kids a healthy way to deal with grief i.e. face it, feel it come to terms with it and realize thtat you’re nowt alone in grief. That said however, this american culture is able to take even the most significant or important events and manage to either trivialize or commercialize them -- sometimes both.

  3. says

    Everyone has their own grieving process. I don’t like it when people tell me “to just get over it” or “you can handle it”. As far as anniversaries, it can be looked at in a positive manner. Just look back briefly, and remember where you once were and how far you have come. Don’t stay there and dwell on the past.

  4. says

    Even though we I do believe that everyone grieves differently we all grieve. The problem is when you want to act tough as if nothing has happened. That is why I feel that there should be a class in school, like American History, teaching kids how to deal with grief. The life if filled with grief and if you don’t know how to grieve you could end up ruining your life. I have had some very disturbing moments in my life where I needed to give myself time for proper grieving, instead I continued as if nothing happened. Naturally, it all came back to haunt me when I really couldn’t deal with it. Life is funny that way, it hits you when you are at your lowest.

  5. says

    I agree with you totally, here in the uk, we had to endure the endless out pourings of grief after the death of Diana. It may amaze some people that one of our national papers is still almost daily referencing it in any clumsy way it can find. (Daily Express) We also have just had the anniversary of a couple of multi death sports tragedies. Again endless public grief and memorials…when will it stop? P

  6. says

    Interesting and thought provoking piece. Grief can manifest itself in many ways and one person’s perspective on how to deal with it will vary wildly to anothers. On the point on children however, parents need to be able to understand their children, their maturity, and also of course their personality and past experience. Only based on these and other factors can a decision be made on how that child should best face grief. It’s not one size fits all, and I dont think any one particular way of handling grief should ever be ruled out.

  7. says

    Sir, I agree that every person has his or her own way of grieving. I’m OK with public memorials since they are part of our culture. I do respect your outlook towards this matter.

  8. says

    I’d have to agree with you. There is something to be said about a personal grieving and the impact of personal reflection. On the other hand learning how to deal with the death of a loved one through the eyes of a stranger is still a great thing. I am torn. Great post tho.

  9. says

    Yeah, let them grieve in their own way. When I lost my father, it took years for the grief to come out. I wouldn’t admit it for years. And look at our 9/11…some Americans are still in denial.

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