We didn’t know their names before tragedy and cruelty took their loved ones from them. George Floyd’s siblings – Philonise, Terrance, LaTonya, Bridgett. Daunte Wright’s mother, Katie, who stood in front of microphones and told the world about the last moments she spoke to her son, just before he was shot. She described seeing on a phone screen his bloodied lifeless body. There have been so many family members of slain black men and women who have had to find the strength and the courage to let their grief play out in front of the world, it would take an entire column to list them all. And not only them — the parents of the Sandy Hook children, families of all the victims in so many mass shootings we struggle to list them all. More as each week rolls by.

 None of them ever thought they would be there, speaking to a crowd through microphones, sharing their emotions and their memories with reporters on national television. Grief needs the comfort of other people’s arms; it needs the tears of others to flow into the ocean of pain that courses through you when unfathomable loss has driven you to your knees. But to know the eyes of the world are on you is an entirely different thing.

 With all that we are focusing on in the trial of Derek Chauvin and the most recent shooting of Daunte Wright, I think it’s important to stop and reflect on what it takes to allow your grief to be played out in front of the world. It’s a tightrope act. You don’t want to break down so completely that you can’t speak, but you also want the world to bear witness to your pain, to share in it. You know there are those who will judge you, but you have to push that aside. Life and death matter more than the opinions of people who don’t know you and never will.

 Some of us grow up knowing that we will, in time, be required to put our emotions on display in front of the public. The Royal Family knows, on Saturday, when they bury Prince Phillip, that the world will be watching. It’s always been a part of their lives – a dance they have gotten used to. But you need to know that familiarity doesn’t make it any easier. Grief also needs solitude, a veil around it, and if you are thrust into the public eye you have to find that place yourself and insist that the veil be pulled tight. 

 When my father was shot in 1981 and when he died in 2004, I accepted the glare of the spotlight because it had been there for most of my life – sometimes farther away, sometimes blinding me. I went through the week of services always aware that I was being watched by a world of strangers, and probably being judged by some of them. It’s a strange thing that happens – you draw a line through yourself. On one side is the conscious awareness that people are watching, on the other is the roil of emotion that you can’t help but reveal, but which you have to maintain some control over. When I’ve watched the Floyd family lately, as the trial progresses and they’re being interviewed, I know that’s what they’re doing every time they pause before answering a question. I’ve been awed by their dignity and their willingness to take part in this strange dance of grieving in front of the world.

 And I have found myself hoping that when the cameras move away and they are alone, they allow themselves the time to break down and give in to grief’s messiness. We have become familiar now with people we had never heard of before, who come before us in their darkest hours. The least we can do for them is acknowledge the strength it takes for them to stand there and let us witness their pain. The sympathy of the world can be comforting, even if it feels strange, but the deepest waters of grief have to be navigated alone. 


  1. Joy kim says:

    Good essay. Karen tumulty would agree! Fyi She complimented you as a very good writer in her cspan Q&A intvw about her new book on your mother. Click on my name for the intvw link.

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