Grieving in public, healing in private

October 17, 2006|By JEAN MARBELLA

They said the grass would start growing soon. For a while the newly planted patch probably will remain distinct from the surrounding field, then its borders will fade over time, and eventually, the outline of where the little yellow schoolhouse stood, and where it was so horribly violated, will be no longer be distinguishable from the surrounding field.

Meanwhile, about 150 miles to the northeast, another scarred piece of land remains an open wound. Five years after terrorists struck the World Trade Center and killed nearly 3,000 people, the site remains a yawning abyss, drawing both grievers and gawkers.

In Nickel Mines, Pa., the speed with which the community briskly dispatched the schoolhouse and thus the physical symbol of the shootings of the Amish schoolgirls stands in stark contrast to the much delayed, highly debated rebuilding of New York's Ground Zero.

It's not an entirely fair comparison, of course. It's much easier for a religious community of like-minded believers in Amish Pennsylvania to decide what to do, and simply do it. New York, where everything, let alone Ground Zero, is subject to competing business, political and community interests - all loudly expressed and demanding attention - the rebuilding of such a big and sensitive site is understandably a more complicated affair.

And yet, as the Amish community has demonstrated again and again since it was thrust into the spotlight after the school shootings, there is something to be learned from the way they live lives that are so very different our own.

The razing of the schoolhouse last week initially seemed jarring - it was so soon, less than two weeks after the shootings that remain so fresh in the mind. How could they move on so quickly?

The answer is, of course, they didn't. Five of the girls who were shot are still recovering, their five classmates who perished were recently buried, in newly turned earth. Their families and their community haven't moved on, they simply have turned inward. And that, of course, is where true healing takes place.

Repression gets a bad rap. Conventional wisdom is that airing your feelings, talking about them, and then talking some more, is healthier. Heaven forbid that any thought should go unexpressed, any grief should not be put on public display.

And yet, there is some recent research indicating that repression may not necessarily be such a bad thing, something that's going to give you an ulcer. And some of this new strain of thought on how to deal with traumatic events comes from work done in New York after 9/11. As a Feb. 23, 2003, story in The New York Times reported, a psychologist found that some survivors who were encouraged to talk about and revisit their experience actually felt worse, even re-traumatized.

What the psychologist, Richard Gist of the University of Missouri, said flies so in the face of the current culture - the gut-spilling that takes place daily on Oprah, the constant urgings to say what we really think - that it's hard to believe. Especially since 9/11 is surely the event in which the act of grieving took on its most public face ever.

Surely there has never been such a mass tragedy in which we learned so much about the individual victims, or in which their survivors played so prominent a role in the aftermath - particularly in how 9/11 would be memorialized. An entire 9/11 industry has emerged - a whole never-forget brigade devoted to keeping the event in the public consciousness.

And yet, for all this energy, Ground Zero five years later still awaits redevelopment. Into the void, without actual rebuilding and an official memorial on the site, the kitsch-meisters have flooded the marketplace. The T-shirts with the defiant slogans, the counterfeit FDNY hats, the amateur picture books that street vendors and souvenir shops sell - hardly the kind of commemoration that such a monumental event deserves.

If nothing else, the razing of the Nickel Mines schoolhouse deprives the gawkers and the souvenir sellers something to gawk at or create an industry around.

It will take a little longer for Ground Zero to similarly deprive the grief-seekers of the physical remains of the 9/11 terrorist attack that draw them to the site like some sort of perverse magnet. At long last, the redevelopment plans seem to be moving forward rather than in circles. The towers that have been designed for the site by some of the world's top architects look like they'll be distinctive additions to the city's skyline.

And as appropriate a part of their locale as the patch of grass that will soon start growing in Nickel Mines will be in its setting.

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