Let 9/11 Families Mourn in Private

The ceremony at Ground Zero reminds us of the unthinkable pain of those who lost loved ones—and why they should be allowed privacy. Lee Siegel on the problem with public grieving.

09.11.11 5:01 PM ET

We are mortal beings, limited by our human nature, and we often cannot fully inhabit another person’s pain until we see some aspect of our experience reflected in that pain. I had my children somewhat late in life, and watching, on television, the ceremony at Ground Zero, I felt some final barrier in me fall when one small boy spoke to his father, who had been killed on 9/11, and said that he never knew him “because I was in my mom’s belly.” Something in me gave way. I could not stop sobbing, and I suddenly I felt connected to all these people, to these men and women and children who had been torn apart on that day. Through the narrow, selfish portal of my own fear and dread, I felt, for a moment, the tidal force of what these people were enduring.

You watched this ceremony, you watched people get up in pairs and read the names of the dead and then speak their unspeakable pain to the mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and husbands and wives and companions who were murdered or who died on 9/11, and you were almost shamed by their dignity and their composure. And you were struck by something else, by a realization that became stronger as the ceremony went on. Their pain was unsharable. After the ceremony, each one of them would go home and be alone, once again, with the memory of the touch, the voice, the smell of the people they loved so much and whom they would never see again. You realized that there was an incommensurability between the private pain of the loved ones and the public commemoration of that pain. You realized that whatever public rituals exist for the expression of grief, grief stays solitary, following the bereaved person through the day, into bed, into the search for sleep.

And as you sat there, unable to keep yourself from weeping, stunned by the enormity of the loss of that day, you had to bite your lip from time to time, as you hoped that the people left behind, their hearts broken, could find their way to peace when the cameras stopped rolling and the ceremony ended. You recalled some of the shriller voices over the past few days, strangely self-centered voices, that spoke of the grief caused by  9/11 as an “affirmation” of being American, of American liberty, of the necessity to ferociously defend America. You felt that there was something obscene and disrespectful about this because the grief was not general on that day; it was private and particular and experienced only by the loved ones of the people who died in the attacks. And for all their love of their country, they did not feel “American” when the phone rang, or the doorbell rang, and their lives changed forever, permanently, unalterably. They did not think of liberty, and armies, and the sacredness of democracy. They did not experience an “affirmation.” Something in them broke. As you watched the ceremony today, you realized that some part of them was still broken, and would always be broken, and would never become something that meant anything more than the senselessness of sudden violence and death and an inexplicable absence.

You watched the ceremony in New York City today, and you realized that there were two ceremonies. There was the public attempt, with cameras and speeches by public dignitaries, to make something positive, and even inspiring, about the chaos, and the screams, and the slaughter of that day. And there were the poor lost souls. One part of them will always be lost, no matter how strong and successful they have been since that day. Their grief deserves, demands, to be remembered by all of us as private, as sacred and unappeasable to each person in his or her own way, as existing beyond the public realm and as being taboo for public purposes. We must never forget these people and the people who were taken from them. We must remember them always, and we must leave them alone.