When mourning a loss in public, trying to say everything right and sum up a lost life may be the worst thing that you can do
On September 10 I attended a funeral service for a member of my family who was a mother of triplets, all aged sixteen. As a part of the traditional Catholic mass, her two sons, her daughter, and her husband each devoted a brief eulogy embracing the enduring vitality of love and esteem for a woman who was the pillar of their family. And as you might expect, each remembrance was quietly elegant, indemnified by its solemn poignancy to the hazards of inexperience, shock, and ineloquence. Yet, as mourners filed slowly out of the church, each pausing briefly to acknowledge the gravity and incalculable weight of death, I could not divest myself of a separate sadness that had nothing to do with her passing, and everything to do with trying to say a few words about the dead.
There is a certain indisputable respect owed to those people who engage the enormous task of paying tribute to the lives of those whom they have lost. It is a respect owed to them because the monumental importance of their task looms with little but the prospect of failure. On the one hand, it is so easy to not say it right, to leave something out, to fail -- to ultimately succumb to the challenge of condensing the import, the magnitude of achievement, and the substance of a life into such a small space. But worse, perhaps, is the chance of success. Perhaps most terrible is the possibility of saying everything right and suggesting that that life was of a kind that could be abridged so easily. Even if we dismiss that inference, it is difficult to avoid the terrible implication of insignificance imparted to everything unmentioned at a funeral, to every moment lived by an individual that didn't survive the cutting floor of his or her eulogy.
I decided to write on remembering the remembrance of September 11 after its tenth anniversary had passed. I made that decision because I had no desire to critique any effort made to pay respects to the dead. There is a noble impulse in all tributes to the fallen of September 11 that must go undisturbed and must be beyond reproach; deference to that impulse must exist apart from criticisms regarding any one memorial's imperfections, or a mention of how easy it is to co-opt tragedy for the purposes of profit, if we are to preserve the integrity of remembrance in general.
But lost amid the flurry of retrospectives and features about 9/11 is the inclusion of one of the things that made that day so haunting: its silence. On that day there was an inexplicable terror in the disjoint between the tremendous roar of each tower coming down and the noiseless rise of the ensuing smoke; the way that sirens pierced the stillness; the sound of a landline going dead during a 9-1-1 call made just moments before collapse. The deafening quiet at the end of the towers' fall was perhaps no better represented by the empty chatter that news media was forced to generate in response. For days on end, broadcast commentary was juxtaposed with an endless loop of images and video clips of the towers' disintegration, often in the same frame. And without fail, words rarely seemed fit; pundits and journalists lost their place on air and silence lingered in newsrooms, as if the very sight of such inconceivable and instantaneous loss was itself an endless void that sucked the ability to speak down with it.
Artists, novelists, trauma theorists, and psychologists alike speculated that September 11 was an event that could not be spoken about and necessarily existed outside the functions of language. In that spirit, public gatherings across the country were punctuated by moments of silence, acknowledgments of the inadequacy of speech in a time of overwhelming grief and reverence for the expressiveness of life itself. To murmur, to even attempt to murmur, it seemed, was in many ways to offend and denigrate the tragic eloquence of steel meeting steel, bodies leaping from windows, and the composition of a mass grave out of the materials of a once triumphant financial center -- as if those things could possibly find a home in words.
But a decade later the words come more easily. With the slow healing of a massive wound there has emerged an ability to speak about it with greater candor, openness, and profundity. In some respects, the ten-year anniversary of September 11 was observed -- especially in the media -- by means of an earnest effort to say things with a greater depth of feeling than anyone else. It was an anniversary seemingly marked by a contest to say things more insightfully, or artfully, or solemnly than the next, lest our day of observance be mistaken for a display of collective appreciation. And at the end of it all it was easily forgotten how readily our tributes and our eulogies fail us, especially for an event characterized by the awful scope of its tragedy. Little deference was paid to whether or not it was wise to try and speak, in a handful of sentences or paragraphs or pages, for the infinite cruelties inflicted upon those who never buried friends and family. Few asked if it was possible to be the voice for each voice lost.
This isn't to say, of course, that there is no value in written or spoken tributes to the fallen of 9/11. Each offers new entrances into a place of comfort, and provides novel ways to make peace with or extract understanding from an apparently unintelligible and meaningless event. That is the implicit promise made by the in memoriam -- a promise to compel September 11 to be something that makes more sense and hurts less. But to search for understanding in words is, in some ways, to deprive our national recollection of the way in which words didn't suffice and understanding was so evasive. It is an effort at odds with the immediate aphasia thrust upon onlookers, with the experience of watching a monstrous and unknown species of fear settle into the fragile joints of New York, with the wretched muzzle that anxiety and dread put on spectators, rendered inarticulate as they were forced to watch jet fuel gnaw through the structural supports of each tower.
More than anything, though, the clamor to pay the best tribute to September 11 forgot that, when speeches and turns of phrase fell short that day, it was often only our private and unspoken languages of comfort that met with and quelled despair. These were the feelings, a thousand times more eloquent than words, that led to hope. These were the inner compromises made with pain that allowed friends to reach out to friends in need. And these were the interior convictions that facilitated perseverance. Ten years later it must be said that no one will ever be faulted for paying public tribute to September 11, and rightly so. There is nothing unwise in looking for ways to dispel this persistent sadness. Yet it must also be said that sometimes the most productive and meaningful sentiments are those that remain our own and remain unstated.
Before the funeral service for my cousin, I was asked if I wanted to share anything. I said no. My tools seemed very futile and feeble and too often in the noise of remembrance is a forgetting that some of the most authentic and profound displays of love and respect for those lost come in moments of silence. To that end I found myself satisfied with the prospect of finding, in the quiet, a moving on, and a letting go.
Image: REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz.