From Where I Sit – Grief: Public or Private?

The very public and widespread outpouring of grief following the death of four Canadian soldiers in Kandahar has gotten me thinking. And I’m not alone.

Historians and war veterans, in particular, seem from newspaper accounts, to be baffled by what has been described as an over-reaction. The memorial service at Skyreach was attended by 16,000 including the prime minister. Thousands of messages have been posted to the Department of National Defense website. Flags flew at half-staff across the country.

Some WWII vets wonder what will be done to top that when losses number in the hundreds. While no one is begrudging these men their honor, some experts question the public display and media frenzy. I’ve seen it described as Oprah-esque—-the making of the private public.

Naturally, analysts have linked it to the emotional aftermath of the September 11th events. While that’s probably true, I think there’s more to it.

It seems to me the first hugely public displays of mourning followed Princess Diana’s death. Can anyone forget the impromptu memorials that sprung up, complete with flowers, cards, candles? The immediacy and full color of the media coverage? The analysis? The outpouring of love and admiration for someone none of us really knew?

In a sense Diana’s death — senseless, tragic, and way too soon — seemed to give people permission to grieve publicly. That outpouring of compassion and overt display have become the norm. Whether at the Columbine School massacre, the site of a plane crash, or a bloody parking lot outside a bar, memorials spring up over night.

I remember driving along the Yellowhead in Edmonton days after the fiery crash that claimed the life of the Aliman boy and gasping involuntarily at the shrine of plush toys and flowers. And I cried, yet again, for a little lost life.

Cynics would say the only ones benefiting are the merchants selling cards, flowers, toys. Critics would say it’s just symbolism and imagery. Skeptics would doubt it leaves lasting changes.

I believe in the catharsis of crying. I believe that in times of tragedy and sorrow we do whatever we can to express our condolences. That expression may be a bouquet of flowers, a casserole, attendance at a prayer service, taking off a crop, or standing in silence with thousands at Skyreach. That communities (like Andrew or Canada or the military) come together to share their strength, to celebrate life, to ponder the meaning of death.

I know some people who refuse to attend a prayer service because it’s too sad, too hard. I see it differently. How can we know joy if we don’t allow ourselves to feel sorrow? How can we help each other at our most vulnerable?

Death does not discriminate. It will visit each of us. How we choose to grieve”?publicly or privately—is our choice. But grieve we must. Whether it’s one or hundreds or four who’ve died, from where I sit.

*Reprinted with permission