Giving in Grief
Forget teddy bears: What if, as a culture, we had a new grieving ritual?
Posted Apr 23, 2013
GeekDad welcomes guest blogger Jessica Handler, author of the forthcoming Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing Through Grief (St. Martins Press, 2013)
Like so many, I'm heartsick on behalf of a city that I called home for many years. But I'm encouraged by the practicality in these acts of compassion, and reassured by something that seems to be missing from the news coverage.
The tide of teddy bears, those mute symbols of public grief, appears to have turned.
After twenty children and six adults were killed by a gunman in Newtown, Connecticut, four months ago, well-wishers donated an estimated fifty thousand teddy bears --- about double the human population of the town itself. Teddy bears and other stuffed toys given in remembrance piled in the back seats of police cars like disoriented fugitives, leaned insouciantly against fence posts, and wore the names of young victims of violence like lanyards around their fuzzy necks. The children they memorialized were newly dead, and as I watched the images on television and social media, I wondered if the parents saw the toys as I did: futile reminders of empty bedrooms and breakfast tables.
The concept of tikkun olam --- Hebrew for 'repair of the world' --- is a lifelong rudder in my own sea of grief. I am the oldest of three sisters, and by the time I was thirty-two, was the only one living. No stranger to the teddy bear that has no child, I can't let my sisters' teddy bears go. I still have my own alarmingly hard-nosed bear, too. I can't save my sisters' lives. I can only save their bears, and mine, in lavender-scented paper in a cedar-lined drawer.
Our father died a decade ago of smoking and hard living. My mother, who guides me now in grieving for her in these last weeks of her life, reminds me every day to continue to enjoy my life and help others enjoy theirs. She's no Buddhist, but she's giving me her version of the Buddhist saying, "make of yourself a light."
Curtiss Clark, the editor of the Newtown Bee newspaper, is quoted in the March 4th New Yorker referring to the journalists who descended on his community as drawn there by the "dark star of calamity." His piercing, truthful phrase describes something I see when I teach workshops about writing well about grief and trauma. Those of us who have experienced terrible loss want and need to be in the company of people like us, who my mother calls members of "the club." We feel somehow like an 'other' --- the sympathetic looks and platitudes we hear are versions of "there but for the grace of God go I." Public grief for a celebrity --- think Michael Jackson or Princess Diana --- is in its own way a real grief that's looking for an outlet. Some of us do what seems right in our immediate grief, like sending an army of teddy bears to towns who have lost so many of their children.
Much the same way that a tsunami can push battered treasures ashore, the national wave of post-tragedy stuffed animals revealed a need for remembrance with a purpose. Sandy Hook elementary school teacher Kaitlin Roig founded Classes4Classes, which helps elementary school students help other schools by providing technology, school supplies, or field trips and, as the website says, "generate a caring climate." A few weeks after the assault in Newtown, the West Hartford News made a plea not for teddy bears, but for donations to service organizations like the United Way.
In Boston, first responders unions --- representing police, fire, and EMS workers --- established a relief fund for victims of the attack, writing on their website that "yesterday we cared for the victims and today we want to take care of them moving forward."
The first time a book club offered to make a donation to a nonprofit organization in honor of my family after I read from Invisible Sisters: A Memoir, I was startled, and I was moved. This was a group of readers who understood on a deep level how to help grieving people by making a change, even a small one, in the world. Since then, I've shared with writers' groups and books clubs the names of some nonprofits that I support, and have been rewarded every time knowing that even an evening's discussion of writing about loss has sparked awareness of organizations that help others in difficult circumstances.
What if, as a culture, we had a new grieving ritual?
Every day, I hope that mass murder and cruelty will stop. I also know that loss will never leave us. Every memorial teddy bear that's left to molder in the weather represents a grief that's led someone to act with the best of intentions; spending cash that might be hard for them to come by to purchase, ship, and ultimately, discard one or a hundred stuffed animals that will do very little good. Imagine using those same dollars and the heartfelt impulse behind them to teach non-violence, to feed the hungry, to shelter an animal. To make a lost life shine on.
[NOTE: Be smart about charitable giving: if you're unsure about a charity's reputation or how an organization allocates funds, check with the Federal Trade Commission (www.consumer.ftc.gov) or your local Better Business Bureau.]