A Year of Community Grieving in Newtown: A Tale of Two Publications


We know so little about community grieving. What is normal and what is not? Perhaps the tragedy in Newtown needs a careful analysis over time.

Give sorrow words: the grief that does not speak Whispers theo’er fraught heart, and bids it break.
–Macduff, on hearing of the murder of his children in Shakespeare’s Macbeth

Thanksgiving will most certainly be a mixed blessing at best for the loved ones and surrounding community of those murdered almost a year ago in Newtown. The victims, of course, were mainly young schoolchildren attending Sandy Hook Elementary School. Soon after this Thanksgiving holiday will come the 1-year anniversary of that most tragic day, December 14, 2013.

Anniversaries have a psychological way of intensifying important emotional experiences, both good and bad. That process must by why I’ve just read 2 publications so very different in their portrayal of the grieving process in Newtown.

The Newtown tale
The first was a publication that I ordered. It is the Special Tribute Issue of The Newtowner: An Arts and Literary Magazine. It is a beautiful magazine, filled with pictures, poetry, and portraits of Newtowners. It seems to have been put together about 6 months after the tragedy-the time frame when healing from normal grief is usually more obvious. The cover shows a curtain being opened on a mythical American small town.

The staff begins the magazine with this message:

We have been changed-all of us-by the events of December 14. We will carry this experience with us for the rest of our lives. We offer this issue to honor those we’ve lost, to bear witness to the grief we have shared, to celebrate the town we’ll always love, and to take one more step on our long road to healing.

The Honorable Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut commented on the response from those outside of Newtown:

Newtown was flooded by a sea of stuffed animals - tens of thousands of comforting toys for the community during its time of need.

Rabbi Shaul Praver of Congregation Adath Israel wrote:

They would say, “We have gone and what is done is done-so arise and celebrate the years we lived together.”

Near the end is a Buddhist and psychiatric perspective by James Knoll, MD, the Editor in Chief of Psychiatric Times:

Any movement toward peace must begin in each individual’s own mind. Each of us must somehow learn for ourselves how to cultivate a fearless compassion, how to allow our own pain to become a stepping stone for understanding the pain of others, and how to have our spirits unbroken even when our hearts are.

The New York tale
Then, about 6 months later, I read the article “Orders of Grief” by Lisa Miller in the November 11th issue of New York magazine. What a picture it portrayed! Is this because of the different goals of the two publications? Is it from their different publication locations? Is it a reflection of the timing of the process of grief in the community? Or something else altogether?

The article begins:

As mourning came to Newtown, so did an outpouring of sympathy and money. Which has sometimes made mourning even harder.

What does this mean? Did we outsiders contribute too much too soon, I wondered as I read that? What helps such community mourn in the long run?

The piece goes on:

The community recently voted to raze the school and erect a new one in its place-the demolition has begun-but this past December, it was where everyone wanted to be . . .

From a trauma perspective, I would agree with razing the school so that it is not an invariable trigger to December 14, 2012. The story goes on:

According to the Connecticut attorney general, about $22 million has flooded the town since December 14, finding its way into about 70 different charities set up in the wake of the massacre. Very quickly, the matter of disbursing those funds became something else, a proxy over how to evaluate grief . . .

How could the funds be distributed to not only the immediate family members, but others affected to different degrees, I wondered as I read on?

The biggest fund by far was the one set up by 9 PM the day of the attack, under the auspices of the United Way of Western Connecticut. By April, it held $11 million, and a local psychiatrist was named president of the board of the fund, a position that has made him one of the most unpopular men in town.

A psychiatrist in such an important community position seemed like a dream come true to me. Here our professional expertise seemed to be valued by a whole community and stigma put aside. Yet, it looked like he became an easy target for displaced anger.

Herrick and his fellow board members had initially faced two questions: first, how to calculate disbursements to the grieving, which meant drawing lines around groups of victims and prioritizing their grief. And second, how to weigh the immediate pain of the bereaved against the future (and unknown) needs of the town.

Now, I knew how to calculate spending money under capitated managed care contracts, but not this sort of calculation and measurement on how much money for how much suffering. How would they do it?

Herrick, along with a handful of others . . . had to defend those calculations when the bereaved accused the United Way of being unfair, insensitive, condescending, elitist, paternalistic, and a mantra recited by the grieving, of ‘money, money on the backs of our dead’ . . . This is the question before the town now: how to lay claim to an uncertain future, to move forward and build unity among the various factions.

This sort of community conflict is taking its own toll. Monsignor Weiss, who declined to give the dead children a blessing in the school, is chronically ill and can’t control his emotions, according to the article. I don’t know how Dr. Herrick is doing. I don’t know what I would have done in his place.

Tales of grief
So, this tale of two publications portrays Newtown in a year of tragedy turning to hope turning to tension. We know how different each individual’s grief can be depending on the nature of the loss, what or who caused the loss, the relationship with the person who has died, earlier losses, cultural values, and resiliency-among other factors. We know that normal grief can often turn into complicated grief or clinical depression.

But we know so little about community grieving. What is normal and what is not? What can help and what can harm? Does the community need intermittent town hall meetings, based on what we learned about therapeutic communities in longer term stays in inpatient hospitals?

Perhaps the tragedy in Newtown needs a careful analysis over time. It must have some resonance to how larger communities and nations go on to recover from major tragedies. How well has the United States recovered from our local and collective grief from 9/11? Did too much of our anger get displaced onto a still ongoing war against terrorism, where so many more died and where the future resolution is uncertain?

Although I was in one of the distant concentric circles that flowed out of Newtown, I tried to help by writing two blogs, “Mass Murder and Psychiatry,” (December 17, 2012), and “The Psychology of Guns: 12 Steps Toward More Safety,” (March 5, 2013). I’m not sure any of my recommendations have been accomplished. We still do not have any new gun controls. We have had subsequent mass murders.

I welcome your comments and answers to the questions posed here. What should we all do now at the first anniversary and thereafter?

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