The Power of Public Grief

This entry was contributed by on May 11th, 2016 at 12:13 pm and is filed under , .
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For the first couple years we lived in Blacksburg, Virginia, I refused to participate in the Virginia Tech Run in Remembrance. It just felt too weird.

Every April, the university organizes a 3.2-mile run to memorialize the 32 students and faculty members killed in 2007 by a student who’d chained the doors to Norris Hall shut and sprayed classrooms with bullets. The Virginia Tech massacre remains the largest mass shooting in the country, evoked every time another monster murders a lot of people, which is far, far too often.

In Blacksburg, April 16 is a day that will live in infamy.

There are residents who still can’t help but give a PTSD-fueled shudder when they hear a cavalcade of ambulance sirens.

Not me. I didn’t even live here at the time. I heard about it on the news in my house in Iowa, and thought, “How awful,” then more or less moved on.

This was a trauma, but not my trauma. A momentary kick in the gut, that’s all.

Then I moved here from Texas in 2012 and discovered that in some ways, April 16 happened yesterday. People brought it up in PTO meetings and dropped it in casual conversations. They promised on social media that they would #neverforget. A horseshoe ring of 32 gray Hokie stones in front of the administration building acted as a permanent reminder, but there were also, I knew, a series of memorial events each spring. The Run in Remembrance was one of them.

I never signed up. Because I didn’t feel intimately connected with the tragedy, horning in on it felt somehow false, an ugly and undeserved display that one researcher termed “emotional rubbernecking.”

I hadn’t earned the right to be there. But after a year of studying place attachment, I changed my mind.

April 16 was the town’s tragedy. Now that I lived here, it was mine. The difficult things that happened here—even long-ago history—belonged to me in a sense. For better or worse, I’d inherited them and needed to do my part caring for them.

For someone who wants to feel like they belong, that matters. In a 2015 study, Miriam Rennung and Anja S. Göritz, psychologists at the University of Freiburg, set out to test the effects of sharing negative emotion. They gathered study participants into groups of three or four and had them watch video clips from sad movies like Schindler’s List, either collectively, semi-circled around a large screen, or on their own laptops with earbuds, not knowing that the person next to them was watching the same thing.

The result? Participants who communally watched the same clip felt closer to each other and more socially cohesive afterward than the people who’d stayed in their own head space. Experiencing negative affect together, at the same time, with attention focused on the same depressing point, made them feel bonded.

In other words, the public mourning that I’d eschewed as made-for-TV spectacle— the candlelight vigils, the public memorial services, the placing of stuffed teddy bears at community shrines—fosters social connection among people who vitally need it. Hopefully, write Debra Jackson and Kim Usher in an editorial in the International Journal of Mental Health Nursing, it will “contribute to community healing and recovery from trauma.”

So a few weeks ago I lined up alongside the Drillfield, Virginia Tech’s enormous quad, in my orange t-shirt and sneakers, and with 10,000 other participants observed a moment of silence for 32 people who I’d never known and never would.

Despite that, the run isn’t morbid or even particularly sad. The marching band plays. A capella groups sing along the route. Everyone yells “Let’s go Hokies” as we stream into the football stadium.  But for at least that one moment before the running starts, we focus our attention on the single horrific thing that unites us as people who live in Blacksburg. I’m guessing it’s similar to how people in Newtown, Connecticut, feel united, or residents of Brussels, Belgium.

None of the current crop of Virginia Tech students was here in 2007; the freshman class was 9 years old then. We see the shooting at a remove, but because we live here, we’re in it together.

What about you? Have you ever participated in a candlelight vigil in your town or another kind of community mourning ritual? Did it help?

(This article comes from “This Is Where You Belong,” Melody’s blog at

9 Responses to “The Power of Public Grief”

  1. John Stephens

    Photo credit of candelight vigil/remembrance – Ben Townsend/Flickr.

  2. Margaret Henderson

    I was the Director of a rape crisis center during several incidents of high profile acts of violence against women. What I learned is that all of that energy – the fear, grief, anger, disbelief – has to go somewhere. Wise community leaders create a healthy collective target for those emotions rather than run the risk of enabling individual negative reactions or of not bringing them to some form of closure. Yes, it is easy to dismiss the value of a candlelight vigil or a march, but being in a supportive community during times of stress – even for only a short time – can be so very calming and healing. Repeating the event of remembrance not only validates the losses to the survivors, but also helps us process our own reactions with a new perspective of time.

    • Melody Warnick

      Thanks so much for sharing this, Margaret. I love that idea of seeing public grief forums as a cooling, calming channel for emotions.

  3. John Stephens

    Melody, could you add a bit about rituals and how to navigate religious traditions in public settings?
    Grief and loss are tied often to spiritual beliefs and traditions. People want those deep values affirmed as they gather “in community.” If the gathering is at a house of worship, then that tradition will be affirmed. But if the community has many houses of worship – and people who feel affected, but are not aligned with a religion – what is both meaningful and not exclusive for open, public events? What has been done in the VA Tech setting?

    • Melody Warnick

      Churches do tend to throw open their doors after community tragedies, and for religious people that can be incredibly comforting, both to be in a familiar space with other believers and to emotionally align the tragedy with your understanding about hardship. The rituals of religion can be comforting too, which is why most memorial services mimic them, with lighting candles and observing moments of silence.

      But for public mourning, it’s more inclusive to meet in nondenominational spaces like libraries, parks, or convention centers. Or even beyond. In 2008, on the first annual Day of Remembrance of the Virginia Tech shootings, the university sponsored everything from a candlelight vigil to a designated meditation room to music to dance to chess. A candlelight vigil may not be healing for everyone.

  4. Rick Morse

    Love the post Melody, and not just because I’m a lifelong Hokie. It seems to me that public mourning/remembrance rituals are sort of the same vein as public celebrations. Both help create and nurture a spirit of community. Kind of two sides of the same coin I suppose. In other words, Blacksburg nurtures a spirit of community with remembrance day as well as events like Steppin’ Out or celebrations of sports victories, etc. All of those kinds of events reinforce the social cohesion you are talking about. And it seems to me that communities need more of that nowadays that ever as natural kinship is diminished and political/social cleavages seem to be widening.

    • Melody Warnick

      You’re right on, Rick. Both the happy events and the memorial events create a collective identity; they make you think of yourself as a Hokie, or as a Blacksburgian. There’s something about being in tight quarters with hundreds of other people, all doing the same thing, that is really effective at creating social cohesion and a shared sense of community.

  5. John Stephens

    To keep the conversation current, per the Charlottesville Aug. 11-13 protests, violence and subsequent vigils and rallies in various parts of the U.S. The following comes from The Atlantic magazine – In squares and streets across the United States, vigils and marches were held this weekend in response to the hatred and violence on display during a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12th. 32-year-old counter-protester Heather Heyer was killed when James Alex Fields Jr. allegedly drove a car into a crowd of counter-protesters, also injuring 19 others. Gathered here are images of some of those who took to the streets to mourn, and to decry racism and hate, from Charlottesville to Chicago, Washington to Los Angeles, and more.


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