WE ONCE GRIEVED AS A NATION

Once upon a time in America we understood how to grieve together. We understood that our identity as a country was wrapped up in our willingness to be tender with each other when horrible things happen. That time seems to have vanished and I wonder who we will be if we don’t return to it.

 Amid the nightmare of 9/11, the one gift was that our wounded nation came together and grieved. We addressed strangers as if they weren’t. We took time with each other. We didn’t care what the other person’s politics were. We had been driven to our knees and we looked up to find each other. I had long been scheduled to give a lecture a few days after 9/11; a plane flight was involved and planes were grounded. I hoped they wouldn’t start flying for a while because flying was the last thing I wanted to do, but they did, just in time for my lecture date. It turned out to be one of the most moving experiences of my life. People were gentle with each other, kind and tearful with the flight attendants. No one spoke much on the plane ride; it was hushed, respectful…and polite, which is not a word we use much these days.

 There have been two other occasions when the country mourning together touched me personally. When my father and three other men were shot by John Hinckley in March, 1981 political differences were shoved aside and the nation paused, worried, and grieved. When my father died in June, 2004 again politics seemed irrelevant. A good man had died, whether you agreed with him or not. And crowds of people lined streets, gathered onto freeway overpasses, just to watch the motorcade drive by. For a few days, the country felt more peaceful. I remember reading a news report that crime rates were lower that week.

But now, with so many mass shootings we can barely keep up with them, with 19 school children and two teachers massacred while police stood outside a locked door for over an hour, we seem incapable of coming together in grief. In fact, the idea of grief has turned into a political tool. Just hours after the Uvalde shooting, when many parents still didn’t know if their child had survived, when other parents were giving DNA samples so the shredded bodies of children could be identified, Ted Cruz went on camera and berated the media and the Democrats for bringing up our lax gun laws, suggesting that both were “politicizing tragedy” and chided everyone who isn’t like him for trying to “restrict constitutional rights.”

 America’s response to the rash of mass shootings, which is unique to this country, has been to stand on either side of the divide that has now come to characterize this nation and point fingers rather than extend hands. 

The families of those children in Uvalde deserve what my family got – a country that can pause and come together in shared grief. The families of the victims in Buffalo deserve that, as do the families and loved ones of all the other victims in all the other mass shootings that we are dangerously close to getting used to. Grief softens our edges, reminds us that we are, as humans, fragile and in need of comfort and companionship when life turns dark around us.

 When grief isn’t embraced, other emotions move in to take its place. Like anger. And while anger can quite fairly be threaded through grief, on its own it’s a damaging thing. It leaves ashes and ruin behind. Who are we as a country if we can no longer understand that when tragedies happen, we need to come together in compassion and humanity, and allow ourselves to be overcome with grief?

One of the most appalling comments after the Uvalde shooting came from Police Chief Pete Arredondo, the man responsible for ordering the police officers to remain outside a locked door while children were being slaughtered inside. Speaking to Shimon Prokupecz of CNN, who asked why he hadn’t given any statements, he said, “We’re going to do that eventually. Whenever this is done and the families quit grieving…”

Quit grieving? Does he have a particular timetable on that? There is an alchemy to grief, it changes shape, it settles differently in your life as time moves on. But for the families who lost a loved one because someone easily bought a military-grade weapon and opened fire in the most innocent places – a market, a school – grief will never “quit.” There will always be an empty seat at the dinner table, there will always be beds not slept in, toys still wrapped, echoes of a voice down the hall that isn’t there anymore and never will be again. If we can’t come together in grief as a country and bond over the excruciating loss that so many are suffering through right now, then God help us all.  

One Response to WE ONCE GRIEVED AS A NATION

  1. Ron Canter says:

    Ms. Davis

    I have read your all opinion pieces in the Washington Post. I admire your devotion in keeping alive your father’s memory and legacy. Your writings are a fitting tribute of a child to a parent who is fondly remembered by Americans and who changed the world by winning the Cold War without firing a shot.
    Your words and thoughts are needed to help us process and react to the disgraceful and shameful public appearance of John Hinckley at a for profit concert. Please get the Post to publish your thoughts. It will help all of us (and hopefully will help you) to get through this disturbing event and the unwanted publicity that has been generated by a man who deserves the scorn and disdain of all Americans.

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