9/11: a Lesson in Memory

Unless you have been living under a rock the past week, you have experienced the dramatic increase in news coverage as we approach the tenth anniversary of 9/11.  NPR, The New Yorker, The New York Times, even Vogue magazine all have run stories reflecting on the events, the people, and the aftermath of that terrible day.  One of the most common and most important lenses through which these stories have been reflected is through personal remembrances—accounts of loved ones lost, and the many and various ways in which their memory continues to be honored.
No one I knew well died that day, so I can’t even begin to relate to the experience of those who waited days in vain for news of partners, daughters, fathers and friends.  However, I am going to go ahead and take the risk of reflecting on one aspect of that experience:  the fact that September 11th has become something of a national day of remembrance, recognized and acknowledged by an overwhelming majority of people—both in this country and beyond.  This yearly collective remembrance seems to me to be a great consolation to the bereaved, minimizing the danger that those loved and lost will be forgotten; and allowing for publically sanctioned opportunities to talk openly about their loss, to be consoled, and to share reflections with others.  This communal, intentional time for memory’s nurturing and flourishing seems to me to be a rare and precious thing in the midst of a society that rarely takes time to indulge memory’s musings.

In my experience, too often, when a friend or relative dies, the loving crush of people who fill our lives with phone calls, cards and visits all too quickly disperses; and a few short months later, we find ourselves alone with our grief.  And by the time the first anniversary of the death rolls around the following year, it is rare if even one or two people in our circle of friends remember the date.  Part of the reason for this is that in society as a whole, we have expectations that people will move on from death and loss quickly; and so sometimes we even hesitate to solicit memory’s voice, out of the fear that we will bring up a painful subject better avoided.  So we choose to say nothing; we choose to talk about something else; we choose to let memory languish.

But, as anyone who has suffered a devastating loss knows, we don’t forget—we never forget; and without opportunity to let memory’s rivers run, to bring the past into the present, to release both tears and laughter, the loss remains a private point of pain—hidden, raw, and lonely. By contrast, the shared experience of memory has the effect of wrapping the loss in the arms of love, in the warmth of friendship, and mitigating sorrow with peace.   It seems to me that one of the greatest gifts we can give the people we love is attention to their grief—not just in the moment, not just in the weeks following a death, but continually, faithfully, and repeatedly.  Who gets tired of telling their favorites stories about their parents, spouses or children?  Who doesn’t want to share a favorite episode, or a favorite picture?

So, tomorrow, as we remember those loved and lost that tragic day ten years ago, I hope we also remember those others, lost on other, unremarkable dates, and offer those survivors our time, compassion and consideration as well.  Memory’s cherishing is everyone’s task.