How to grieve a public tragedy

I wasn’t happy with my post on Tuesday, the one in which I’d written about Boston.*

All of it was true – the way Fred asked me how I’d felt, the way he gave me permission to feel bad, the deep, deep indebtedness and pain that I feel toward the city that gave me life. But I wrote it all from a place of self-consciousness. I held back. I put up a front. I thought, the only way people will come to read this piece is if I tell them it’s not a depressing piece. I fenced in my emotions and plagiarized the optimism and fortitude that I’d read about and already seen in so many people.

The thing is, I don’t know how to grieve. I don’t know how to grieve for a public tragedy and for one in which I don’t have any direct connection to the actual victims or survivors. But it hurts, and it hurts me in a way that is different from the Oklahoma bombing and even the 911 attacks. It hurts so badly because it happened to a place that I see as my second mother.

And I didn’t know what to do with my feelings. Of course, I called my parents and talked to my brother briefly. Max got it all in stereo. Fred got the abbreviated PG version. Close girlfriends and I exchanged very short messages. But really, what can you say? A good friend of mine offered to talk. But she’s busy, and I couldn’t imagine dialing her up while she is trying to juggle school pick-up and grocery shopping just to make her listen to dead silence occasionally punctuated by a sob in the background. No, at this time I probably needed to be alone…to be alone and yet not all by myself. So I went to Facebook. It is there that I learned of the explosions in the first place as well as found an instant gathering of friends, including childhood friends in Boston.

Grieving on Facebook made me feel better until it did not. And I’d go in this cycle over and over and be too stupid to just sign off. It’s an easy place to grieve. You can identify those who feel the same as you do and, through mutual sadness and anger and bewilderment, you find company. But not everyone meets you there; in fact, the majority doesn’t, or some do, but sporadically. You try to control yourself and only update your emotional state twice a day, and you think you are helping the public by sharing articles that offer newsworthy updates or some eloquent meditation on what has happened, swearing, to God, that this “must-read” will be the last (for the day, anyway). You do this because for you it’s cathartic, and because, you hope, it might bait some friends to come over and make you feel less alone. But slowly, you fear, your Facebook friends are tuning you out. Or perhaps they’re so consumed by their own grief that they cannot deal with Facebook. Or perhaps they don’t know what to say. Regardless, you are left back where you started: What do you do with your feelings?

It all happens in such vastness. It isn’t our grandmother dying, where there’s a place we can all go to and feel connected. When large, distant tragedies hit we shed tears with our hands clasped over our mouths across state lines, across oceans and we want to hold someone’s hand and yet so many times we are doing this in front of a screen. During Sandy Hook and Boston I wanted to reach out and hold more than just my husband and my son. I wanted more but I didn’t know where I could find these other hands. Maybe the reason I’ve turned to Facebook is because when so many invisible people are hurt, I need to go to the biggest place I can find.

And with vastness comes diversity. I have learned, through Sandy Hook and now through Boston, that we all deal with and process our feelings so differently, and yet how we do it impacts how others around us can cope. There’s the person who can’t stop talking about it and the person who wants to shut it all out. Put them together in a common space, like Facebook or a house, and no one’s needs get met.

When no one talks then it can be easy, at least for me, to assume that everyone else is moving on. Everyone is coping, and everyone is doing what she needs to do to not let a couple of bombs get in the way of Being There for her children. Many girlfriends say to me that they just turn off the news; it is too upsetting and they just turn it off. I allow myself to believe that they can do this because they are made of better maternal fiber than I – that in times of crisis and down-to-your-knees emotion they still have the mental clarity and wherewithal to carry out their priorities.

On the day after the bombing I blogged about Boston and then I failed to make dinner. Max had to take Fred to his after school activity, and I told him that I couldn’t cook. I just couldn’t. Because cooking would mean going to the supermarket and going to the supermarket would mean getting showered and getting dressed. I’ll change to go out for dinner, but before that I couldn’t.

And things continued like this. My body started to feel heavy, like I was on the verge of catching the flu. My head, neck and shoulders ached. Fred asked to do something with me and I said no. At night I scolded him, longer and more harshly than was necessary, because he was slow to get into bed. Rather than talking back, he just clamped his hands over his ears. Yet still, before he drifted off to sleep, he reached for my hand as he always does, and whispered with his lips brushing my cheek as he never fails to do, “I love you too, too much.” He is a third-grader, just like the little boy who died. I got to hear my son tell me that he loves me; Martin’s parents never will.

Yes, I hated myself at that point.

After Fred drifted peacefully to sleep – a privilege I realize I can no longer take for granted – I opened my computer, and I read my friend Alexandra’s blog post When Your Heart Tells You to Stop. She talked about her day after the bombing. It was uncannily similar to mine. She could barely cook. She’d walked out of the auto shop forgetting to pay for the work done on her car. She was unsettled and unfocused and hurting.

It wasn’t just me.

It isn’t just me.

It is because of Alexandra’s post that I can feel, let alone write all of this. Before it I was bombarded in every direction by Fred Rogers’ quote, the one about how in bad and scary times we should always look to the ones who help. There were messages galore about looking on the bright side and being resilient and bouncing back and having hope, and that became the message I believed I needed to feel and to own, right away. We Americans are very strong and very forward thinking and very optimistic. I take so much pride in that, but on the first day and even on the second, I just wasn’t there yet. I couldn’t race my emotions through. Call me slow but for the life of me I couldn’t muster up the strength to move on, no matter how many people, it seemed, were already on that other side. How those people got there so fast, I don’t know. Maybe they are wired differently. Maybe they found all the right support. Maybe they turned off all the news. For me on those first few days, I just needed to hurt, to say, This Sucks, and to have people tell me, I know.

*I’ve since edited my post Boston from Tuesday, because I owe it at least that. I’m happy with it now.

8 thoughts on “How to grieve a public tragedy

  1. Oh, my dear friend. There is nothing wrong or bad or insufficient about you. None of us has a map. All we have is how we feel. And we can’t deny that, because the fog we fall into tells us, too soon, not yet, this isn’t your style. The world needs all the styles: the positive ones, the grievers, the doers, the fall backers, the consolers, the cryers,the holder uppers. We need them all, because it’s just too much for one way to handle. Together, maybe we can begin to mend. I love you, Ceci. I’m lucky to have met you.

  2. All of us have a different way of grieving, it doesn’t make one better than the other. I tend to be the one that wants to talk about it and I feel everything so deeply. I watch others that move on with this tragedy and others. This was extra close to my heart because of my son and girlfriend are living in Boston as you know . There are those of us that feel more and those of us that feel less. I am happy to be one of those that feel deeply. My thoughts have been with the people of Boston. I’ve been sharing updates on Facebook, articles from the Boston Globe and interesting updates. It was a good place to share even if some people wanted to pretend the horror was over. So many have just begun to have to live with this. I hope you feel better.

    • Thank you, Ayala. I agree and I’m glad to know that you are one of the strong feelers too, and that you feel good about that. I am now learning to accept that in myself and to know there’s nothing wrong with it. I also hope you are doing okay.


  3. Cecilia,

    The events of last week are still difficult for me to process. Although I am not from Boston, my heart sank to think of all those runners and their families suffering. I kept replaying images of a runner crossing the finish line and then hearing the boom of the explosion. And then the mayhem. Coincidentally, there were some personal stuff going on in my own life that made the week even more challenging.
    I am not certain if I’ve processed everything that has happened. There is a sense of hopelessness when these unforeseen events occur. It messes with my vortex of certainty.

    It is difficult to grieve in this situation. Where do we start? I find the whole situation complicated and layered with hurt. Perhaps you won’t know today or the next day how to grieve, but in time, perhaps with a visit to Boston, will give you permission to sink into your sadness.

    Thanks for this honest post.

  4. Of course it’s not just you. My significant other isn’t as emotional (by far) as I am so there are times when we’re on our little island together just the two of us and I feel like an alien kind of, you know? Because he feels, but when he doesn’t LIKE to feel too much so he backs away from things whereas I sink into them and let myself feel. Doe that make any sense at all? LOL. He avoids really sad things basically is what I’m trying to say.

    For example, I watched The Perks of Being a Wallflower the other day. Never read the book. Heard the movie was good and I have to agree — I loved it. But this simple line right here had me bawling my eyes out and S.O. thought I was losing it. The main character says, ““There is so much pain. And I don’t know how to not notice it.”

    He’s talking about all the pain in the world. And as soon as he said those words, I just lost it. It really captures how I feel, like almost all the time.

    After Sandy Hook, After Boston, and really when anything tragic happens that I have a hard time moving on from, I recite certain affirmations and quotes to myself. This one helps a lot: “Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.” – Helen Keller

    Sending love and hugs your way. xoxo

  5. I understand what you’re saying about needing to put on that public (positive) face. I understand what you mean about the heaviness, the vastness in which these feelings you can’t quite articulate seem to shift around, darkening everything. I feel as though I have no right to these feelings but it doesn’t change the fact of them, their pervasiveness, the profound sadness.

  6. I read this post first since it’s the most recent. But I will now go back and read your first post. I think we all respond differently to public tragedies and that there is no right way to do it. I think the desire with most tragedies is to find the redeeming light, to make sense of things in our brains so that we can move forward. And this works, sometimes. But sometimes we can’t move forward. Sometimes it’s too hard to shift gears and continue on as if nothing has happened. I didn’t hear of Boston until seeing your Facebook updates. I don’t watch TV and with children, I don’t turn on the radio. But when I learned of the news, I was saddened. I have no connection to Boston, but the thought that innocent lives were lost in a place that seems so close, was scary. My husband turned on the news a couple of days back and there was a mother speaking to a reporter. She had lost her daughter and was crying. My daughters and I were in the kitchen, so we couldn’t see the tv, but we heard her sobs. My oldest asked, “Mommy, why’s she so sad?” I had no answer, and wanted my husband to turn the channel”Her daughter’s dead,” seemed too much for a three-year old, so I just said she lost “something.” This isn’t the truth, yet, that was the truth. “But, mommy. Why’s she so sad?” I couldn’t answer this, so, I demanded my husband change the channel and he did and we continued on in our bubble of knowing about tears but not knowing enough of the stories to make the kind of emotional connection that we could. I feel for all the families involved, even from this distance and pray that their hearts will soon mend.

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