Shared Grief Is Good Grief

By Dickinson, George | Phi Kappa Phi Forum, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

Shared Grief Is Good Grief


Dickinson, George, Phi Kappa Phi Forum


Because there is no formula for grief and no two people grieve alike, 9/11 did not change how people mourn. Yet 9/11 likely contributed to how people share grief.

Unlike those who mourn someone dying from chronic illness, no one could prepare for the 9/11 decedents (other than the terrorists). Without experiencing the healing process of anticipatory grief the 9/11 bereft soueht outlets.

Impact of the media on grieving

The media provided one. Visual media have fostered openness about grief most readily since the Vietnam War, which was fought "live" on television and was the first war witnessed from living rooms. On 9/11, Americans turned to television in their disbelief, confusion, anger, sorrow, and fear. In especially horrific images, more than 200 people trapped in the fiery, crumbling Twin Towers of the World Trade Center jumped to their deaths for lack of other escape. Most went down alone; a few held hands. As a comment on the blog Chas' Compilation put it, "The faces of those who chose to fly from the upper windows are forever burned in my memory." (Chasblog-spot.blogspot.com; see Sept. 10, 2007.)

A nightmare of this magnitude was unknown to most Americans. Not since the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor had something like this occurred on U.S. soil. The sense of security and self-confidence Americans assume as their birthright suffered a grievous blow. These deaths were sudden and violent, thus more intense than lingering or expected demises. More guilt may occur as a result because there is no opportunity to say goodbye, express feelings, make amends, etc.

No wonder, then, the popularity of "Portraits of Grief by The New York Times. These self-described "snapshots" of those who died in the World Trade Center were "a means of connecting, a source of consolation," a way of "paying homage," and "a guide to how to live a better life," wrote contributor Janny Scott in "Closing a Scrap-book Full of Life and Sorrow" on Dec. 31, 2001. "And the more we knew about them, the more we could wrestle with our own grief," novelist Paul Auster told her.

An emerging 9/11 theme is sharing in the loss of the mourner and exalting in the life of the departed. This is evidenced not only in the "Portraits of Grief mini-eulogies, but also on Facebook, whose "Never Forget 9/1F site the social network company calls the "largest and most interactive 9/11 memorial page on the Internet." It puts grievers in touch with all sorts of people who offer support, from mental-health professionals to fellow sufferers, observed Lauren Katims in "Grieving on Facebook" in Time (Jan. 5, 2010). She cited experts who conclude that "sites like Faccbook are helping people become more open about grieving." Closure used to be thought of as necessary to move on. Katims counters by quoting psychologist Robert Neimeyer, the bereavement specialist: "Closure is for bank accounts, not for love accounts"

Don't survivors appearing on television talk shows thank the public for its concern, no matter the pain endured in the exposure? Crying is contagious; thus, viewers are brought into the grief. A sharing of grief, even by strangers, seems to console; it helps to know that others care. Grief shared is grief relieved. The 9/11 dead were just like us: firefighters, traders, window washers, chefs, parents, grandparents, amateur golfers, avid shoppers, and others who were certainly not saints, Scott pointed out. And identification with and connections to them happened through the media.

Other public displays of grief

Because death is an unknown, anxiety exists about what is "beyond." Existentialists argue that each person's death is unique and that death is something everyone will experience alone, no matter how many people may be in attendance. Anthropologist Colin Turnbull, in The Mountain People, his 1972 book about the Ik tribe in Uganda, recounts how a tribesman dying in his arms from wounds from multiple arrows turns away at the moment of passing and "in true Ik style dies alone. …

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