At the 1964 Democratic National Convention, Robert Kennedy—finding kinship with a doomed heroine of fiction—referenced the loss of his brother, President John F. Kennedy, by quoting Shakespeare’s Juliet:
When he shall die, take him and cut him out in little stars and he will make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night and pay no worship to the garish sun.
During the wake and funeral of my own beloved brother, that imagery kept bubbling up through my awareness, and it comforted me. I thought the lines struck a keen balance, expressing love, transcendence, and a kind of optimism in the assurances of a twinkling eternity. Because we know we will never be in love with night, Juliet’s fancy brings a great depth of human feeling right up to the precipice of sentimental overreach, but—pretty consolations aside—do not send it over the ledge, and into a crashing descent of self-indulgence wallowing.
As I watched the 9/11 Memorial Service at Ground Zero, I couldn't help wondering—a decade after that unprecedented attack—are we holding too closely to our grief, allowing ourselves to entertain it beyond a point that is healthy—and in danger of falling in love with the dark?
This is asked with all due respect. I have no wish to in any way trivialize the pain and loss so many people live with each day; the scope and scale of the 9/11 attacks were something wholly new in our experience, and the hours-long naming of the murdered is a dramatic illustration of just how many people we lost on that day. If the emotions ran high in noting the passage of a decade’s worth of grief, perhaps that is because, before this past Sunday, so many of these families had no grave to visit beyond this new garden at Ground Zero, which is very much a kind of cemetery.
But I understood why some were expressing weariness with the yearly Cathartic Rite. If writer Michelle Goldberg was crass about it, tweeting, “Am I the only one who is completely dreading the coming orgy of 9/11 commemoration”, Lewis McCrary managed tact and thoughtfulness even as he plumbed the same line, writing, “. . . the past ten years have shown that in commemorating those lost on 9/11, we seek a kind of permanent order–but perhaps not one that is healthy . . . History is itself evidence of the fleeting nature of individual memory, even if acknowledging that we will one day forget is painful.”
My thoughts have lately been running in a similar vein. People must grieve and mourn, and there is no timetable to which anyone should be held as they process their personal loss, yet I am becoming uncomfortable with the public conformity of our mourning; if someone observes the day with a reconciled sigh instead of a sob, it does not mean they are cold or unfeeling, or that they have forgotten a thing. It may mean, simply, that they are spent, and at a loss to add anything more. A reluctance to emote does not mean that the terrorists have won.
In Shanksville, Pennsylvania and in New York City, two new memorials were unveiled, and all of the dignitaries involved, Presidents Obama, Bush and Clinton, Vice-President Biden and Former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, participated with great dignity. In New York they even managed to add a bit of scripture and prayer, which were effective amid the poignant moments of silence.
But had the ceremony progressed from its opening, to include a few remarks from first responder representatives, and perhaps a bit of music, and then an official proclamation of the opening of the memorial garden, with an invitation to the families to linger there for as long as they wished, it might have been a more powerful, and perhaps healthier remembrance than the six hours that followed, which were moving until (as family members began to top each other in declarations of love and remembrance) they became numbing; until (when it appeared a women meant to name all 11 of her grandchildren and tell her dearly departed what each had been up to since last they’d chatted) it seemed like we were barreling toward self-indulgent grief porn, from which we should avert our eyes.
When JFK was assassinated, and Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy, too, we had our ceremonies; we mourned and—aided in great part by the example of their widows—we managed our grief of many decades; we did not allow it to manage us. We were sad, but we did not despise the day and fall in love with night. We were stricken, but not immobilized by those events—paralyzed politically, spiritually, economically and energetically—as we seem to have been since 9/11.
Perhaps the prolonged process of designing and building the Memorials in Shanksville and at Ground Zero has added to our atrophy; our fellow citizens were incinerated, disintegrated—hidden in the shadows, though we called for them, and called. But we need no longer send their names out toward the unanswering sky. As with the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C., there is a place, now, where we can find them, and connect; where we can trace their names, make a rubbing, leave a kiss and a flower. Then, stuck too long in one day, we can call olly-olly-oxen-free to the night and finally step from mere shadow into light—where elusive closure may be found.
Elizabeth Scalia is the Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos and blogs as The Anchoress. Her previous articles for "On the Square" can be found here.
RFK at Convention
my brother’s wake/funeral
Obama, Bush, Giuliani at Memorial
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