9-11-13: Grief in the Long Term
Board: British Invasion
I’ve written an essay, for this venue and others, about 9/11 generally and my husband’s murder on that date specifically, pretty regularly every year since about 2006. I started then because, first, a five year anniversary is considered a milestone, and second, because that’s about how long it took to feel steady enough about the event to write about it successfully, without breaking it off or abandoning it, without the emotions raised during the writing overwhelming me to the extent that writing was impossible.
A friend posted briefly in another venue yesterday about the intrusiveness of other people in modern grieving. In her post she mentions the Jewish tradition for grief, which is to enter and sit quietly, to allow the bereaved to choose their own time and topic for speech, or to have none at all; and I agree that this tradition is almost certainly preferable to the behavior of either pushing oneself on the bereaved to comfort them when comfort isn’t desired, or absenting oneself from the bereaved in a well-intentioned but poorly applied reluctance to offend. In a society that medicates itself for social anxiety, grief is not well tolerated nor well understood, and because of this unwanted and fearful empathy, its expression is problematic at best. Traditions which would tend to guide us in dealing with it gracefully are being cast aside, usually for other perfectly adequate reasons entirely, but cast aside nevertheless. This process of society’s ridding itself of its history and ritual is one reason some atheists believe they should adopt the forms of religion – because it has historically been through religion and its forms and rituals that overwhelming sentiment, good or bad, found its channel. I don’t agree with this sentiment; I think that in general, rude people will be rude, and graceful people will be graceful, within these forms or without them – grace does not flow from the form. And we know that, regardless of what other people will or won’t say to the bereaved, grief will follow its own course in each individual, and they will experience what they will experience, and it will soften (or not) in its own time; and there really isn’t much anybody else can do about that, ritual or no.
But it does bring up the question I asked myself as I wondered what to write this year: how long is it appropriate for me to keep on talking about this? When may any audience reasonably expect me to just leave it be, and let it fade into the background? To this day, there is a reading of the names of every life lost at the World Trade Center in 2001 and 1993, at the Pentagon, and in the planes, and we light up the sky where the towers used to be. But now (finally) there is another tower in their place. When is it appropriate for us to reduce the ceremony to a short, dignified flag raising? When do we let go of rituals which through overuse have become empty? Must we wait until the last survivor of those honored dead is dead themselves?
I won’t be attending any of the several ceremonies to which I was invited today. I didn’t watch the streaming video to hear my husband’s name read. There really doesn’t seem to be any point; they started pronouncing his name correctly about three years ago, and I’ve satisfied myself since then that they were going to continue to get it right.
But it’s funny. Every year, a week or two before this terrible anniversary, I find myself becoming oddly bad-tempered, emotionally volatile; I get angry, or weepy, or a hard-to-live-with admixture of both. And every time, it baffles me, at first, and I find myself wondering what in hell is wrong with me – until, usually a few days before, I realize: oh, yes; it’s that time of year again. So the fact is, I can desire that it should be time to move on; I can say it’s time to move on, I can think it’s time, decide that it’s okay for me, now, to move on. And it doesn’t matter at all, because inside there is that part of me which knows in its darkest places that I have not moved on, and may never do so, not the way I think I should anyway. This is never going to be “just an ordinary day” for me, not ever in my life.
Is that good or bad? Neither, I suppose, and maybe that’s the point. There’s no satisfying conclusion here, not to this essay, not to this grief – which latter has now lasted longer than I ever knew the man whose loss I’m grieving. And my life has, to a profound and wonderful extent, moved on. I don’t center myself on the grief, I have a wonderful family, and we are all growing, all the time, together. Nevertheless, this time of year always comes around, and always pierces me in a way that, year on year, I never seem to expect, and at this stage I have no reason to think that will ever change. In a way the grief stands almost separate from me, its own entity, existing on its own strength.
That’s okay. I can stand it, if, once a year, I am pierced again. Tomorrow, at least, can be just an ordinary day. And I’m really looking forward to tomorrow.