Thursday, February 6, 2003

Mourning Columbia

Public displays of grief can cross the line


The picture is worth a thousand tears.

Yellow caution tape marks debris from the Columbia.

In that photo, taken along a highway in Texas and reproduced in newspapers across the country, tufts of grass surround a jagged piece of the fallen space shuttle.

Inside the caution tape's perimeter, three small American flags struggle to stand at attention.

A small bouquet and what appears to be a note - rolled up and tied with a ribbon - lean against the shuttle remnant.

For me, this makeshift memorial crossed the line. Literally and figuratively.

The words on the tape read: "DO NOT CROSS."

That applies to anyone not investigating the shuttle's fatal final flight.

Saturday's disaster claimed the lives of seven astronauts. The loss was tragic. The astronauts' families were devastated. America wept.

Still, I believe the debris area was compromised.

Mourners took too many liberties with their public display of grief. Yet again.

Coping by mourning

Public displays of grief make me uncomfortable.

Ecumenical church services and crowds of people placing flags, flowers, candles, balloons, stuffed toys and hand-written notes at impromptu memorials contribute to my discomfort.

Maybe it's because I prefer to mourn in private, at home, with family, close friends or alone.

Not in groups, not with strangers, not along some highway.

To make sense out of being so vexed over the contents of this photo in particular and displays of public grief in general, I placed a call to Dr. Ken Doka. He's a respected expert on grieving in America.

The professor of gerontology at New York's College of New Rochelle and senior consultant to the Washington-based Hospice Foundation of America is the author of the upcoming book Living with Grief: Coping with Public Tragedy.

"Be less vexed," Doka said upon hearing my concerns. "It's good to have these outlets."

Public displays of mourning, he noted, provide "a sense of control over uncontrollable events."

"The act of coming together in rituals symbolically reminds us that we are not alone in our grief."

Grieving concerns

People have been concerned about the right way to grieve for ages. Plutarch, the Greek biographer and essayist, cautioned his wife in one of his famous letters on the pitfalls of excessive public mourning. Victorians mourned a lost loved one for a year by dressing in black and wearing mourning jewelry.

"During World War I," Doka said, "the pendulum swung back."

Private mourning was in fashion. Public mourning, with the world at war, was deemed depressing and unpatriotic.

Obviously, the pendulum has swung again. In our fragmented society, these public displays are seen as identifying symbols of unity.

Doka likens them to mourning clothes "which were like a great big `Handle with care - Fragile' sign."

He views these public expressions of grief as "opportunities to express our private grief and anguish in public. They're a collective sense of saying, `We care.'''

Caring is wonderful. Sharing grief can be therapeutic.

But, what concerns me is when the caring and the sharing become excessive and possessive.

We can feel the pain. But we can't own it.

As we remember the fallen astronauts, be sure not to forget one very important distinction. The real pain is felt by the loved ones they left behind.

Call Cliff Radel at 768-8379; or e-mail

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