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Why we mourn – and move on

The Globe and Mail by Jill Scott 20 December 2012

There’s no right or wrong way to mourn the young lives lost in the Newtown massacre, but mourn we must. Ceremony and ritual are deeply human experiences, a need we have to fill.

Some people are so moved they drop everything and travel long hours to a small Connecticut town that most of us had never heard of until Friday. But why do they do this? Is it because we can’t quite believe the news and need to find out for ourselves? Or because we want to show our support for the families in person? Or because the media coverage has been so relentless that we see this tragedy as our own?

Whatever the reason, the outpouring of grief on the part of ordinary citizens has been staggering.

In recent decades, there has been a steady escalation in public displays of grief in response to the death of public figures such as Diana, Princess of Wales, Michael Jackson and Jack Layton. Public figures’ strong media presence makes us feel as if we know them personally. So when they die, the sorrow we experience is real.

But in a case like Newtown, it’s the shock of the violent loss of innocent children that evokes such a strong reaction.

The fragmentation of communities may be a contributing factor to this increase in public mourning. In the past, mourning was highly prescriptive. Social codes dictated what we wore, where we went, what we did and for how long. Religious communities also played a large role, with strong figures of authority to guide us through difficult times.

This sense of fragmentation may also result from the digital nature of our communications. Our engagements with others are increasingly managed through social media and other electronic platforms. This means fewer “face time” gatherings with friends and family. This more solitary existence has left many of us searching for the human connections that bring a sense of meaning to our lives. And so we seek to congregate with others in times of trauma and loss.

In the absence of more prescribed mourning practices, small ceremonies and symbolic gestures will inevitably crop up. People will create makeshift memorials as places to gather in times of grief, to place a flower, light a candle or just reflect in silence.

But the need for small ceremonies may be greater at this time of year. As we move into the holiday season, we leave our normal routines, the ones that help to keep us grounded. We associate this time of year with special celebrations involving family and friends, a time when generosity and gratitude bump into each other more often.

Finally, the holidays are for, and about, children. We go to extreme lengths to delight the little ones in our midst and hope to find just a smidgeon of innocent glee for ourselves. And so when we’re confronted by a Newtown, we’re truly shocked. The point is not to dismiss the outrage or avoid the tears but to take stock of what we have.

We often think that it’s adults who keep children safe, that it’s our responsibility to protect them. But children do help adults, keeping us real by carrying on. When asked whether we should talk to our kids, I say only where useful. Don’t overthink the issue for them.

I, for one, will be wrapping presents with my kids, telling stories and baking cookies, building the value of our family. It’s good to feel empathy for others, but it’s also good to dedicate our celebrations to the well-being of all and move on.

Jill Scott, a professor of languages, literatures and cultures at Queen’s University, is the author of A Poetics of Forgiveness: Cultural Responses to Loss and Wrongdoing.