I have just finished reading an excellent blog post about the disappearance of a little boy in Oregon who vanished from school after his stepmother took him to visit his tree frog exhibit at the science fair. The post addressed the fact that there was much speculation about the stepmother’s guilt, based not on any kind of history or evidence, but on the fact that she (and the boy’s father) seemed not to be reacting in a way that proclaimed their innocence to onlookers. As a mother, a stepmother, and a human being who witnesses grief frequently as part of her job, I found myself responding strongly to the idea that people outside a tragedy are able to judge with any accuracy the reactions of those at its center. I have lived long enough to see responses that were deemed “genuine” and were subsequently found to be false, calm and measured grieving that was no less deep for its smooth surface, and a national dismissal of the grieving process. It seems to me hypocritical and shallow to evaluate anyone’s true feelings, let alone their guilt in relation to a possible crime, based on some rickety construct of imagination, snippets of TV dramas, and various other kinds of fiction. Until we wear the shoes of the terrified, the bereaved, or the shocked, we ought not to imagine for one minute that we know what constitutes a “normal” response, or what we ourselves would do.
Five years ago in July , a local boy disappeared. His name was Ricky Holland, and he was seven years old. His foster parents were visibly agonized, participated tirelessly in the hunt for the boy, and were often seen weeping on television. A more gratifying, soul-stirring parental manifestation of pain could not be imagined. Night after night we watched, riveted, as the exhausted couple returned from combing yet another marsh or field, sometimes sobbing, always hollow-eyed. occasionally stumbling and clinging to one another for support. As it turned out, the touchingly broken parents had killed Ricky, bundled him into a plastic trash bag, buried him, and lied for months to police, the media and the hundreds of volunteers who gave up days to search for the child. Crazy like the proverbial foxes, the Hollands showed us all what we wanted and expected to see, and it worked. It was grief sufficient and patent enough that we all believed them; it was a visible manifestation of what we knew we would do under the circumstances. It looked right, and we bought it.
I have also been involved in the death of another seven-year-old boy who died accidentally while riding down a hill with my son Sam on another hot, July night. The day after the accident, after the flashing lights, the yellow tape, and the throngs of gawkers and police-issue blue, the boy’s father came to our house to visit Sam and tell him how grateful he was that he had run to get help right away, and to commend him on his bravery. Maybe it was because he was a doctor, or a father, or just a decent human being, but in his time of greatest loss he was calm and rational enough to consider what had happened to the “other boy.” There was no issue of guilt in that case, but had the media been observing the father’s behavior I am almost certain that there would have been noise about “excessive calm,” and by psychobabble about possible attachment deficits. What that man did was an astonishing gift of awareness and compassion for my own child, and I am eternally grateful to him, but his behavior was decidedly not what we know we would do. We would cry more in public, be unable to leave the house, and probably be unable to bear the sight of the boy who survived.
Finally, I think it’s important to acknowledge that in most cases we are a society that is pathologically uncomfortable with grief. It is some exponentially insane kind of ironic to use someone else’s apparent sadness as a gauge for guilt in a world in which we are all about the buck-up, get over it and move on. (I blame the Puritans, although the actual explanation is probably more sociologically complex). Many other cultures seem to have a built-in mechanism for acknowledging grief, from wailing over a coffin to legally mandated leave time following a death. The terrible, empty black hole is still there, but there is recognition that some folks need to wail, some need longer than others to get back on track, and everyone in a community shares in a loss. There are pockets of compassion and honesty here, programs for grieving children, parents and those who have lost a loved one to violence, but mostly the expectation is that you have a few good cries, graciously accept casseroles, and don’t inconvenience anyone else too much with the desperate, wild, unfamiliar and searing pain that threatens to tear you apart. If our only compass at such times is that strange, artificial set of Grief Rules that we learn in this society, what do we do if we don’t feel like crying in public, or if we still feel ravaged after we have worn out the good will of our friends? What if you’re a Kennedy and you want to cry at one of the many family funerals rather than maintaining the requisite stoicism? What if you have lost someone young in shocking and sudden circumstances and you really don’t emerge from your protective daze until weeks after you should have been “healing?”
I have seen people roll their eyes at someone “carrying on” at a funeral, and I have often heard someone told, in the kindest way possible, that it was “time to move on.” Maybe a hobby or a vacation might fill the gaping void – and (if I read the subtext correctly) make the bereaved stop bringing everyone down by moping and being negative. It seems that “normal” involves a prescribed period (maybe six weeks) of intense and observable grief followed by equally visible “getting better.” Anything less is suspicious, and anything more is…suspicious. There is no open-hearted allowance for individual temperament in this standard; we know what we should see and when we should see it, from the moist handkerchief at the funeral to the weak but resolute public reappearance after an appropriate interval. It’s what we know we would do.
Until we have to do it.