Rituals of grief: remembering Sept. 11

Sept. 11 is here again, with all the video playbacks and rehashing of memories and emotion that this second anniversary brings. The question “where were you when the Sept. 11 attacks happened” has been creeping back into getting-to-know-you chit-chat and, in at least some sense, most of us are looking around and wondering how much it means any more.

Politics aside, how do you “celebrate” Sept. 11? Do you light candles? Say prayers? Go to forums? Avoid downtown? Cry? Or do you go about your everyday activities with impunity, with no real need to do anything extra? Instead, you may just wonder how any of the ceremonies do good for the 3,000 dead.

The night of Sept. 11, I went to a candlelight vigil – my first. I’m not, nor was I two years ago, a religious person, so I found myself with no real conception of what I should be doing to vent some of my grief and horror. I remember being handed a flier for the vigil around midday, trying to figure out how to get on the bus down to Loring Park with my friend later on that evening. On the ride there, I remember seeing gas station after gas station with blocks-long lines of frantic drivers waiting to gas up. When we got off the bus we ended up getting lost and didn’t know where to go. Finally, we walked through the trees in the dark to the footbridge and the small group of eclectic mourners huddled there. I was given a tiny white candle pushed through a Dixie cup to hold and the wax melted down through the cup onto my hands.

I remember standing there, listening to the woman conducting the vigil talking about the spirits of the dead and the love we must pour out to them and their families and friends, all while I stupidly stared at the wax slowly spreading over and burning my fingers. It occurred to me to wonder how much pain the people in the towers experienced, how much fear. And I was ashamed that all I had been thinking of, at a time when my thoughts were supposed to be bent on higher things, was that my hands were hurting. So I gritted my teeth, concentrated on feeling love, and didn’t budge a finger.

For weeks after Sept. 11, there was wax covering the courtyard in front of Northrop Auditorium – in splotches from the huge candlelight vigil held there – and a sign remained in front of the Grace Lutheran Church by the superblock, proclaiming that their doors were open for meditation or prayer in remembrance of those lost. There were so many large, organized ways to show our grief, shock and fear in those weeks that it was hard to keep up on what was available.

Many of us chose to go to those very public and large ceremonies and forums and felt we were doing something important and necessary. We felt obligated to go and show our emotions, to hold everyone else’s hand, to sing together, to hug someone and cry, to reaffirm our religious views. This was indeed important and necessary, as it always is with trying to manage great emotion and distress. However, I argue that these events were not ultimately for those who passed away, but for the rest of us.

How much did my candle-holding do for those I was trying to honor? We get on buses, go to vigils, hold candles, pray, sing, hug, cry and talk together because of what it can do for us, not them.

This is nothing to feel guilty about – grief is a selfish emotion if you think about it. Those who died are past our help, so the motions we go through after their parting are for us and not the dead. We should not ignore these rituals, but on the contrary, I think it is important that we continue them and not let ourselves be sucked into apathy. I know the time and the hundreds of miles between Sept. 11 and our lives today is a huge gap, but I believe this is a test of our humanity. How much do we truly value human life? If we value lives, what is the right way to show it?

If there is any time to think of these questions, it is now. This is our chance, maybe even more than it was two years ago, to act. We can do little to nothing here in Minneapolis to help those suffering in New York, but we are granted the chance every day, right here, to recognize our national loss in the only way that truly touches others: giving back.

This is our chance to choose something, anything – however small – to indicate that yes, we care, and that if it becomes our turn to suffer, that others will care as well. Find something to do: donate blood, volunteer, give to a charity, do a favor. In this way, we turn an inactive and potentially destructive emotion into the motivation to benefit others. Beyond the vigils or whatever you are compelled to do for yourself, if you feel compelled at all, make that something extra your ultimate expression of grief and, in that one small way, those lives will be truly honored.

Jenny Taber is a junior. She welcomes comments at [email protected]