Grieving in public

Bemused readeNicole-Gallandrs ask novelist Nicole Galland for her take on navigating the precarious social landscape that comes with living on the Vineyard. Nicole, who grew up in West Tisbury, is known locally as the co-founder of Shakespeare For The Masses at the Vineyard Playhouse. Her combined knowledge of both this island and the world’s greatest melodramas compels her to help prevent unnecessary tragedy wherever possible. Interested in Nicole’s take on your messy Vineyard-centric ethics or etiquette question? Confidentiality ensured. Send your question to

a community

processes grief publicly

in amazing ways

-Beckie Scotten Finn

There were a couple of questions (and answers) ready to go for this week’s Ps and Qs. But something horrible has happened. On the other side of the continent, a random act of violence resulted in a tragedy that touches much of the Island. A lot of us, including me, are struggling to make sense of it.

Between social media and the close-knitness of the Island community, much of that struggle is happening not only publicly but communally. We’re collectively constructing an ongoing eulogy. On Facebook, on blogs, in comments posted to both papers’ online sections, on a board outside the Educomp building, in flags flying at half-mast and lilacs left on beach rocks and black ribbons pinned on jackets.

There is a difference between public grief and private grief. Nothing that I’m writing here is about private grief, which is intensely personal and largely defies words anyhow. The family’s private grief comes before anyone else’s; as long as we respect that there’s not really much else to say publicly about private grief.

But existing parallel to all the private grief is a unified collective loss felt by the community. Such a broad-spectrum extended wake, especially in the aftermath of a homicide, is a powerful and healing thing. It also engenders stuff that isn’t par for the bereavement course.

Phebe Bates created a ribbon tribute icon on Facebook and invited people to use it as their profile picture; Educomp has provided actual ribbons on the front stoop of the building for people to wear. Other artists shared artwork online. In some case it was created to mark the event; in other cases it is presented as a symbolic offering.

In a Facebook group called The Haiku Room, a number of Vineyarders including me (and Ms. Finn, see above) have been distilling sorrow and fury into 17 syllables.

Some examples: Lara O’Brien: “a sun filled weekend,/bright with youth’s energy, fell/dark with a life stolen.”

Mine: “Earth’s orbit wobbles/when a man made of goodness/dies of savagery.”

Samantha Chronister Greene: “Iron Canyon trail/Iron Canyon… I can’t move/past this empty place.”

(Here’s another of mine because I needed a little dark humor: “Dear Mathematics:/I only ever liked you for/His sake. We’re through.”)

Some people also find comfort and inspiration in others’ work. Becky Cournoyer posted a central passage from Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird because it captured for her the essence of the wrong. It resonated with a lot of people (made me cry – still does):

“Atticus said to Jem one day, ‘I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the backyard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.’ That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it. ‘Your father’s right,’ she said. ‘Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corn cribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.'”

As anti-technology as I sometimes feel, I’m very grateful that social media has allowed this kind of communal keening. That said, my favorite instance of transformative collective mourning is necessarily real-world.

Last Sunday evening, on very short notice, a group of several dozen long-time Islanders came together on Lamberts Cove Beach to be sad together. Although I hadn’t been formally invited, I happened to show up when it began and was immediately embraced by Susan Goldstein, one of the organizers and (more years ago than either of us will admit to) my Jr. High School English teacher. The gathering was beautiful, simple, sad and moving. After it was over, elements of it found their way into social media; people posted photos, the papers ran articles.

Many participants had brought flowers, especially lilacs; some of these remained behind on a large rock near the path back to the parking lot. The flowers were still there Monday, starting to wilt and sere in the salty air. They were still there Tuesday morning.

Mid-day Tuesday, I was walking on the beach when I noticed an unfamiliar young woman picking through what remained of the flowers. She was finding sprigs and weaving them into a beautiful, fragrant garland. I stopped to talk to her. She hadn’t known why the flowers were there, and expressed concern that I’d find her actions disrespectful. I didn’t. She had taken the saddest part of our sadness and literally transformed it into something new and innocently beautiful. What a perfect metaphor for the purpose of communal grieving. If I’d had a camera with me, I’d have taken a photo of the wreath and sent it Susan. I didn’t so instead I’m sharing this story.

As communities go, we’re very good at this: the impromptu gatherings, the Facebook message threads, the moments of silence held by the many groups directly touched by this great loss. It’s a garland we should continue to weave.