Portraits of Grief: Do We Need Them Again?

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Not all that long ago, following 9/11, I wrote a piece in the NYLS Law Review titled: Portraits of Grief: A Focus on Survivors. I detailed the New York Times daily coverage of those who had died from the terrorist attack in PA, NY and the Pentagon.

In the article, linked below, I focused on the many challenges of the survivors. Those challenges ranged from the psychological to the economic. Indeed, there were children born after 9/11 who did not know their fathers. And, in the years after the attack, there have been a myriad of lingering issues, including illnesses among those who were in the vicinity of the attack in NYC and many of whom served as first responders. It is a piece I reread periodically. It might be helpful for others to read it; I just reread it yet again.

https://digitalcommons.nyls.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1037&context=fac_articles_chapters

Recently, I was listening to CNN (Ok, you can criticize what I view during a Pandemic), and they have been interviewing survivors of those who have died due to COVID-19. I recall with sadness the interview of a spouse of a high school coach and teacher — someone beloved by his community and his family. He died young and he was vibrant. I listened to parents of a daughter who died who had been a supermarket cashier. They were bereft. They could not find answers anywhere. And I have listened to doctors and nurses describe colleagues who have died after serving on the front lines. They are grieving and yet showing up to work to help the ill and dying.

We have too many deaths now and into the future to have the New York Times or some other publication do Portraits of Grief. As it was in 2001, the portraits went on for days and days. I think every single person who died was covered — from those with riches to those who worked as dishwashers at Top of the World to those who served as rescuers and first responders. It was wrenching to read those Portraits. As the above article indicates, most people focused on those who died.

I focused — with anguish — on those who survived. I struggled with the issues they would confront on a go-forward basis — economic issues, psychological issues to future illness and current grief. I reflected on the challenges of the coming decades. And we recently saw an article on the children of 9/11 responders who died who went on to become firefighters, following in their deceased parent’s footsteps. Some of the survivors have remarried; others have not. Some have thrived. Others have not. They are bonded together, not always easily, in shared histories.

I am not sure what we do when literally thousands upon thousands are dying across the nation. Surely the New York Times — the locale of most of the deaths — was the right publication to issue Portraits of Grief. I ask now: What is the right locale for remembering the thousands who have and will die in the coming months?

When there are Portraits in Grief, there is an opportunity to see the magnitude of the loss; there is an opportunity to reflect on all those who are suffering. There is a way of connecting to those who died and those who survived. How do we do that now?

I specialize in trauma and its impact on educational outcomes for students from PreK — College. Sadly what is happening now is right in my wheelhouse as schools close, children lose parents, children are isolated and the list of traumas continues to mount.

I am not sure I know how to manage the trauma engendered by a pandemic (except to lash out at those who suggest that this is not traumatic). I have nightmares about all the unanswered questions. I struggle to reflect on the lives of so many that will be forever changed. I worry about a world that is not trauma-responsive and those who consider trauma a passing trend (really they exist and they are educated and it makes steam come out of my head).

9/11 changed our nation and our psyches. It was a blow to our national security. It was traumatic for many. It still is. And now, how do we handle the pandemic — where many are ill and many died? And, we are in an environs where we cannot share our grief through touch and hugs and embraces. So, if we don’t have Portraits of Grief, what will we have?

I can’t answer that yet. I know our leaders are not easing our trauma burden. And, the problem is not isolated to the US — it is a global trauma. I need to ponder how we can share our collective grief. When we do, it will be beneficial and cathartic and meaningful. How remains the question.

Answers anyone?

Written by

Author, Educator & Commentator; Former President, Southern Vermont College; Former Senior Policy Advisor, US Dept. of Education; Former Law Professor

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