I could not have known on September 11, 2001 that my experience in Downtown Manhattan watching the Twin Towers fall and the subsequent weeks of disarray in the East Village would prepare me to learn the biggest lesson in the wake of my infant son Finlay’s inexplicable death at the end of labor.
This lesson is that grief does not belong to us as individuals but is, rather, a social phenomenon, such as on 9/11. More than that, an awareness of grief’s social quality is the first step to reconnecting with the world around us and may even lead to a more ethical society founded on the shared experience of being human.
What happens when we realize that grief comes from the outside?
At 21 years of age, I watched on 9/11 as both towers collapsed and the gradual exodus of dust-covered, shell-shocked pedestrians wandered north up the isle of Manhattan.
The following two weeks revealed a new perspective into my community; namely, that New York City was populated not by self-centered city dwellers moving around at the speed of Modern Life but, rather, sensitive and vulnerable people who desperately needed intimate connection with strangers in order to thrive.
The emotions I felt in my neighbors were the vibrations of a shared experience: grief. Not an internal emotion or psychological stage that follows trauma, but an external fact of suffering that exists everywhere all the time and tends to be most visible during extreme events.
This is what grief truly is, something that comes from outside and disrupts our finely manicured yet necessarily artificial sense of reality.
To process the shock and sadness of that day, many of us walked through the empty streets. Against the habitual action of walking quickly and avoiding eye contact, we ambled slowly and made meaningful connections.
“Really, how are you doing? Where are you going? Do you want to talk about what’s happening?” Occasionally, people slipped into movie theatres, which had been made free as a kind of healing distraction.
But mostly people gathered in parks, expressing their confusion and disbelief and, ultimately, bonding through grief. A few weeks after the tragedy, though, things went “back to normal” as a sign, ostensibly, of perseverance.
The collective street walking stopped. Spontaneous conversation petered out. I, though, held on to the interpersonal interactions and realizations about the social nature of grief even after leaving the city four years later to attend graduate school in Minneapolis where I met my wife Joanne.
On June 5, 2014, now 33 years old, I stood haggard in a hospital room in Bloomington, Illinois with my exhausted wife who had been laboring with our first child for more than 22 hours. After confusion about not locating our son’s heartbeat during a routine check, we were told that our baby had died.
What came next was the horrifying, moment-by-moment unfolding of a new reality that I wanted nothing to do with.
Hours later: a strongly encouraged autopsy from the state curtailed the time we could share with our son, Finlay.
Days later: the impossible giving over of our beautiful little boy to the funeral home director for his cremation.
Weeks later: the arrival of his death certificate on my own birthday. A
summer of deep darkness and gloom painfully juxtaposed with radiant sunshine and gleeful children happy to be off from school.
I felt like one of those people who had wandered up from New York’s financial district on September 11: stunned, shuffling reluctantly forward toward nowhere in particular, forced to live into the realization of what had just happened.
While Joanne began recovering from an unanticipated cesarean surgery, I walked from the hospital to a nearby Starbucks. Waiting to cross the street, I looked at the driver of a car that had stopped for me.
I thought, “Who is this person? I will never know her, but maybe she is going through something terrible too. How can we ever know what our neighbors are truly experiencing? Aren’t we all grieving something?”
From these questions and subsequent self-reflection, I determined that there are at least two ways to tune in to the social quality of grief.
First, we can seek out those whom we know are grieving.
For Joanne and me that meant other parents living after the death of their child(ren). Like the cohort of 9/11 grievers now scattered throughout various parts of the world, this community is walking the street among us and can be recognized through meaningful eye contact, attentive listening, and a little conversation.
Second, we can extend compassion to those whose story of grief we do not yet know, which is to say the grief of everybody around us.
This is the more difficult thing to do. A person complaining about a trivial thing at a grocery store while I think, “my baby died,” or someone who seems hyper-vigilant about his own perfectly healthy child but knows that my child is dead—these challenges come frequently and require enormous sensitivity and empathy.
Meeting these challenges with grace, however, strengthens our capacity for compassionate understanding and connection with others. Thus, we continue to heal.
The cliché of “you are not alone” can be hard to stomach, especially when grieving the death of a child that you helped to create with your own DNA and ardent love.
Nestled in that cliché, however, lies a truth that I have tested in the streets of New York and in my subsequent forays into communities of others who have lost children. That truth has to do with grief’s origin.
It isn’t personal to us, and it isn’t something I possess.
Rather, grief is a part of the awesome, messy, complex world in which we live.
Every time we look out and seek the eye contact of others who (will) have experienced grief’s sting, we forge a stronger connection with our fellow humans and lay the groundwork for a lived experience that acknowledges death and loss as necessary parts of our finite condition.
I believe that this connection, or “re-membering” as I call it, points the way to a more just and ethical world. What would happen if we perpetually kept open this interpersonal connection found in grief’s wake?
What might we make together?