I wasn’t in Newtown this week. Not physically. But in some very important sense, weren’t we all in Newtown? Since Friday, December 14th, who among us could rip ourselves away from coverage of the shootings, the speculation as to why they happened, the sight of the President’s tears, the mourners’ grief, the biographies and photos of the children as they started to become known, the adults who died trying to save them?
During the second day of my viewing, I became aware of grief’s odd cousin: guilt. I felt guilty for watching, for crying so much. Who knew the old girl could have so many tears in her for people she didn’t know? I started to feel as though watching the continuous coverage were emotional cutting. I felt the way I did after 9/11: disingenuous. I didn’t know the people who had died. I have no connection to them, not even in the six degrees of separation sense. I’m not even a parent, except of two novels and a black Lab. Who was I, who am I, to shed such copious tears?
Yet I felt guilty for turning off the TV, changing the channel, turning away. “I can’t watch this anymore tonight,” I said to my partner. “I need a break.” When he went to his studio to work, I switched from MSNBC to Lifetime. In that alternate universe, a single mom fell for a department-store Santa. Bells jingled merrily. There were commercials for video games and shoes. Yet while I watched, while I frosted cookies, when I went outside to play with my dog in the mild December Kansas sunshine, I thought about the families of the Newtown victims, particularly the parents of the Newtown children. They couldn’t turn away. They couldn’t change the channel. I wondered what kind of hell they could possibly be in. I thought some of them, maybe many of them, didn’t even know it was real yet. I thought of the one father I’d seen who spoke of his daughter in the present tense: “It’s an honor to be her dad,” he said, weeping.
There are a lot of good and valuable and overdue conversations going on in this country right now, about gun control and mental illness, but what I want to write about is grief. I don’t think any of us really know how to act, to react, to something like Newtown, an event that, like 9/11, is a rent in the fabric of how things should be, that offends the very idea of humanity. Yet even thinking about this, for me, inspires self-disgust: who cares? What does it matter how I react? I am one microcosmic speck in a human sea. Doesn’t my contemplation of my own grief smack of the sort of self-importance inspired by the age of Facebook, an era in which we think everyone around us must be interested in our hourly emotional temperature, is endlessly interested in what we have to say?
That may very well be. But here is what I think about grief and why it’s okay to mourn for Newtown: Grief comes for us all. At some point in our lives, we will all experience it. Grief is wily. It assumes different forms for each person and, trickier still, with each individual loss. I’ve known the kind of grief that makes you think, in its earliest days, that you’re okay because you’re still functioning, that produces an illusory flare of euphoria. And the kind of physical grief that precludes eating and sleeping, that makes crying an involuntary act, like vomiting.
I’m not here to say it goes away, that time heals all wounds. Fuck that. One symptom of grief is that we fight the passage of time because it carries us away from those we love. Time lessens the immediate symptoms. But we carry the absence through the rest of our days and nights, and that is the emptiest part.
I don’t pretend to understand what the parents and families of Newtown are going through. Selfishly, I hope never to find out. Less selfishly, I hope you never have to find out. But I do know that grief, because we all experience it, is part of what makes us human. And so, in our common comprehension, it makes sense that we grieve even for those we don’t know.
In the end–or rather, in the beginning, for this is just the start of Newtown’s grief and our national remembrance–I felt it a moral imperative to watch the coverage and learn a little bit about the victims. When a person is lost, a complex and unique universe goes with him or her. We get only glimpses from the outside. And those of us this far removed get only flashes like light from a star: we’re not seeing something real but instead representative. Still, ingesting those flashes feels like one way I can pay tribute.
The other is to watch Lifetime and play with my dog, to laugh with my partner and make cookies. How awful to do this pre-holiday merry-making when we can feel the Newtown grief from here–or is it? I think one thing any grieving soul would tell you is to appreciate what you’ve got while you’ve got it. Like the last line of American Beauty: “I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life.” Every time I enjoy and am thankful for everyday moments, I think of the Newtown victims. Maybe savoring our lives is the best way we can remember them.