A Public/Private Grief

by Colleen Kavanagh

My friend Chris was on American Airlines flight 77 when it was hijacked and flown into the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. After the memorial service, Chris’s dad said that no matter how Chris had died, their grief would have been just as deep. At least he could find some solace that the nation—indeed, the world—grieved with them. What does that mean? Does it help? Or is such a public grief more difficult for a family that values its privacy? I could tell you what Chris’s family has said, but instead, I’ll tell you what this death and this grief have meant for me.

Chris is my best friend Ann’s older brother. I’ve been blessed with wonderful friends in my life, but Ann and I often say that we feel we were brought together by God. We had our children at the same time; in fact, we met at the hospital. We supported each other through breast-feeding fiascos, discipline challenges, a few emergencies, and lots of dinners and playdates. Was the purpose of those times to be the foundation for our friendship post-September 11? Was I brought to St. Gregory’s by God so that I would, for the first time, feel comfortable praying out loud? For that was all I could think to do with Ann the day of the attack. Whatever the answers to these questions, whether there is or is not a God, regardless of why I am here, in this grief, I am. What does it mean? How is this grief different because it is part of a larger set of events and a larger, very public sorrow?

Perhaps the answer lies in the kindness of strangers. Several days ago, I was negotiating the final price on a rug it had taken me days to find. Just as the salesman told me the rug was 25 percent more than he’d originally said, which put it out of my price range, Ann called. She and her family were going to spread Chris’s ashes the next day. I knew this was probably our only opportunity to talk before that happened, and I knew my children were capable of flooding the store with the water cooler with only thirty seconds of unsupervised time. I told Ann we would talk later that day, knowing we probably wouldn’t, and hung up. As the salesman talked on, I burst into tears. I’m sure he thought I was an unusually emotional person. I felt compelled to explain.

Here is the difference: he did feel my pain, as much as anyone can feel another’s. In my moments of public emotional outpouring, the person I’m talking to often does, to a degree, understand the magnitude of my pain. At a minimum, I usually receive incredible support. And support from a stranger in a time of need is beautiful (although he didn’t offer to lower the price on the rug).

Here is the downside: The rug salesman spent the next thirty minutes talking politics to me. He even mailed an article on President Bush to me a few days later. My desperate attempts to find the time and space to grieve for Chris amidst the ever-present demands of my two children are almost always invaded by someone else's, or my own, opinions on or fears about the politics of September 11.

My most despondent, and increasingly angry, moments are when I am interrupted from a moment of grief by someone—in the store, on the radio, in my own church—who seems to be telling me that the senselessness of Chris's death is qualified because the United States has killed and is killing many innocent people just like him. I grieve deeply for those families; I pray intensely for our leaders. But some days I can't look at the paper or turn on the radio. Some days I struggle with whether I should stay in church during sermon sharing, or even attend services at all.

I don't know what to do with my patriotism in the context of Chris's death. I almost can't think about the hijackers, let alone come to hate them or forgive them. My thoughts are so various and confused—I am struggling to connect one person’s death with my political ideals and the mixed messages about enemies in the Old and New Testaments.

Yet to let these questions overwhelm me and stop me from seeking help from religion and God seems unproductive and goes against my exceedingly pragmatic nature. So for the most part, I push the questions and the angers aside. I go on. Ann and I like to call it the space between: the space between the overwhelming grief, fears, confusion, and anger. That is the space where happiness can be made. That is where I have to make myself spend the majority of my time, because there is no other choice.

Colleen Kavanagh has been a member of St. Gregory’s since 1999; she is now a member of the vestry. Before staying home to raise her children, she worked as a legislative advocate to improve the nutrition available to low-income children and families.

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