Why We Grieve For People We’ve Never Met

In the wake of the Boston Marathon tragedy, Emily Rapp discusses why she, like so many of us, grieved for people she’s never met.

September 11th. Columbine. Waco. Matthew Shepard. Oklahoma City. Newtown. Boston.

These dates and words and names trigger strong reactions and images in many of us. Perhaps we recall the television graphics quick to appear on the news networks, together with footage of harried reporters standing against a backdrop of spinning red sirens and lights, live on the stage of chaos and catastrophe. After each of these events, many of us who have, at best, tenuous connections with these places or the people living in them watched hours of footage, listened to endless speculation about who and why (this last question, of course, too existential and unanswerable for any newscast or pundit). Some of us went to religious services in which a tragic event was dissected, disassembled, but never (of course) explained. Most of us remembered “where we were” when these tragedies of national importance occurred. We committed ourselves, intentionally or by accident, perhaps a bit of both, to an enterprise of public grief. We wept over the portraits of grieving parents and children, spouses and friends. The faces of people we didn’t know started to claim us. And we felt strangely united—as Americans, as human beings living on a planet where chaos is literally just around the corner. What does it mean to publicly grieve? What are the ethics of these public expressions of despair?

After Newtown, while waiting for luggage in the San Diego Airport, I heard a woman say “I’ve been watching the footage for two straight days. I can’t stop crying.” Indeed, her eyes were swollen and red. On the first anniversary of 9/11, I was in Madison, Wisconsin, visiting my college roommate, American flags frozen half-mast from the houses along the middle-class street, the news stations endlessly playing the footage already tattooed on our memories. When Matthew Shepard was murdered in my hometown of Laramie, Wyoming, I wept. The suffering, the anguish, the closeness to a space I knew so intimately and innocently. The morning of Columbine I watched the news footage of kids streaming out of a school and then went to my Comparative Religious Ethics class, where I listened to a lecture about the ethics of forgiveness and felt sick. I watched the bombs explode in Boston for about an hour, that swollen moment, replayed again and again, when those now familiar runners fell to the ground. I texted my friends to be sure they were OK, dreamt the next night about my apartment on Cherokee Street with its single heat panel and cramped kitchen.

When national tragedy strikes we feel small, jangly with uncertainty and a low-grade panic. We leave our homes and smell disaster in the air. We want more hugs from the people we love, from anyone. (“I wish I could host a big group hug,” my friend Kate wrote from Boston.) We listen to sober speeches by our leaders during which they promise us that our “resolve” as Americans to withstand any tragedy is steadfast; they promise to find and punish the people who would harm us. Same script, different tragic event. What does it mean?

When chaos strikes a place with which we have a personal connection, or even in a place we’ve never been or know nothing about, it feels (and it is) personal. Violence is a very real violation of physical and emotional boundaries. When these boundaries are breached, we mourn, we wail, we protest. And we obsess. We watch and talk and wonder and say oh, it’s awful. We say we will not be beaten down. We say we will always rise to the occasion. We say I can’t imagine. We are asked to have bravado in the face of tragedy, in the face of fear.

Why? What do these conversations really indicate about our relationship to the inevitability of loss and grief? What are the ethical parameters and moral implications of a public outcry of grief, at its core the most private, unwieldy, strange, and unpredictable emotional experience any of us will ever have?

Public grief is one part voyeurism, another part compassion, like an emotional freak show. You can’t stop looking but you don’t want to look. Grief is not easily shooed away—even if we try to ignore it, it will find us, remind us, make us look, buzz and bark and roar and sting. Grief is tenacious and endlessly coy, always finding a way. It is like a painful deep tissue massage that never ends. A scab you pick just to make it bleed. Why do we do this? Because we know the truth: We’re going to die. Nobody gets a pass.

And there’s this: Sometimes it is easier to grieve for another than it is to grieve for the person you loved best.

I have grieved publicly about my son Ronan, who died just two months ago. Strangers tell me they weep for him, mourn for him, this boy they only knew on the page. I cried like a maniac for two-and-half-years. But since his death I have felt what I can only describe as an ecstatic numbness, where all the pictures and memories and videos of him mean the whole world, and also nothing at all, proof positive that he is gone, and gone for good. I don’t cry. Instead I feel stumped and strange and shut.

But I wept for those Boston families. I could say I cried because I love Boston and my friends who live there, and that’s true, but I cried because it reminded me of loss, of the day of Ronan’s diagnosis, and of all the times I watched him suffer, and because I felt something we all feel at different points in our life: helpless and all too terribly human. Is receiving this reminder through the conduit of public suffering voyeuristic? Yes, maybe. But it is also compassionate. Is it morally suspect? Certainly. But this particular emotional release valve also has a pure moral dimension.

In her unsurprisingly brilliant book Regarding the Pain of Others Susan Sontag discusses the psychological and philosophical meaning of being drawn to the suffering of others. It’s inevitable, it’s spurious, it’s perverted and also, normal. We know we are mortal, it is rock bottom scary to know this, and the suffering of others is an important and uncomfortable reminder that we both vehemently shun and desperately crave. Like most conundrums of human existence, it’s incredibly complicated.

Strangers are weeping for the families of Boston, because even if we don’t know what their particular losses feel like, the reality of loss is written into our DNA, and the faces of mourners and sufferers hits us on a cellular level. Grief is the body’s deepest and truest echo. Tragedy reminds us of this, and it reminds us that part of the very ethical human project is to imagine the unimaginable. To stare at uncomfortable truths, even if we flinch and scream and cry.

So perhaps it isn’t so strange to grieve for others, perhaps our public mourning makes us more privately human than we could ever be without the presence of others. Perhaps it signals a profound willingness to engage with this world, this chaotic and unpredictable world that we all so precariously walk through every day, thinking we know but not knowing at all—in fact, not having a clue—about what comes next.

Emily Rapp, a regular contributor to Role/Reboot, is the author of Poster Child: A Memoir (BloomsburyUSA, 2007) and The Still Point of the Turning World (Penguin Press, March 2013). She is a professor of creative writing and literature at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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