Legacy of 9/11: new ways to grieve, heal

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The dozens of votive candles flickering at the base of a makeshift memorial give Santa Mejia great comfort. She lost her cousin Maria Rodriguez in the crash of American Airlines Flight 587.

The tribute, decked with flowers, Dominican and American flags, and pictures of some of those who died, also has large pieces of paper where passersby scribble messages of support: "Stay Strong!" "We'll always love you!" "God Bless America and the Dominican Republic!"

Like the tributes for the victims of the Sept. 11th terror attacks - many of which still stand scattered around Manhattan - this shrine in the Washington Heights neighborhood symbolizes an increasingly public form of mourning that is taking root in America.

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It's one that transcends individual religions while drawing on their varied traditions. It is also a more celebratory form of mourning than somber funerals of the past.

"It's helped me immensely," says Ms. Mejia, hugging her arms around herself. "Today, at least, I can talk. Before it was just tears."

The public memorials provide space for healing communal - as well as family and individual - grief. Diversity is their hallmark.

Many are similar to Buddhist shrines. Some are draped with American flags, others with garlands from the Hindu tradition. Still others are smothered dozens of Teddy Bears. Almost all of them are warmed by candles from the Roman Catholic and Jewish traditions and dotted all over with of messages of love and stories, often the witty kind you'd associate with an Irish wake.

"We can look at the rites of grieving as a type of language, a way to express ourselves," says Joshua Miller, a professor of social work at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. "And just like language, they're evolving in a way that is shaking free of traditional constraints - creating a mosaic of traditions."

Several decades of change

The change that's become so evident as a result of Sept. 11th has been evolving quietly for the past few decades.

It was seen in the spontaneous shrines honoring Diana, Princess of Wales, following her death in a 1997 car accident. But the shift had already been evolving on a smaller scale.

Some individuals and families have turned the traditionally somber funerals of their loved ones into celebrations of their lives - full of stories, lively music, and even videotapes. They mix laughter with the tears.

In urban neighborhoods, young artists have turned sides of buildings into murals to celebrate the lives of friends who died - some at the hands of rival gang members, others in disputes with police. And the roadside shrine, a staple of Catholic tradition in Latin America, began appearing along North American highways in the 1980s.

"You're now seeing people express a desire to be more engaged personally in the ceremony at the same time they honor the traditional elements," says Alan Wolfelt, head of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colo.

When New Yorkers, and the rest of the country, were faced with unimaginable grief, all those disparate strains came together.

The result is a new way to deal with death and mourning that is far more open and public, and some contend it allows healing to take place more easily.

"Those shrines are really a way of creating a collaboration between the living and the dead, through stories and missives and art," says Steve Zeitlin, coauthor of "Giving a Voice to Sorrow" (Perigee 2001). "But I think the shrines especially have become a way of connecting directly to that person, keeping them alive in their hearts."

One day, Diane Kennedy of Long Island was walking down 85th Street. She saw a memorial to the nine fireman from the firehouse there.

Paying respects

She crossed the street, touched the building and hung her head for a moment as she crossed herself. "I saw all of the pictures, and my heart went out to them," she says. "I just wanted to pay my respects. I think it's a way to show presence, that the person still exists and is still here."

At the same time the shrines help people feel a bond with those who have passed, they also help people come to terms with the meaning of the event. Dennis Klass, a professor of religious studies at Webster University in St. Louis, Mo., says creating that meaning is crucial to the healing process. The stories about the dead that are being told around family tables, and still daily in The New York Times, help create an understanding of those individuals - whether the story is about a firefighter's heroism, a child left alone, or the best game a youth ever played.

It is a far more expressive way to deal with death than has been apparent during most of the 20th Century, when Prof. Klass says Americans just "shut death out, made it an enemy."

"In the Victorian times at the end of the 19th century, we were very demonstrative in our mourning in a way that's quite different but very reminiscent of what's happening now," he says.

For the Gambale family, who lost their daughter Giovanna in the World Trade Center, the spontaneous outpouring of support that started accumulating on the family's front stoop in Brooklyn in the form of flowers, candles, and pictures gave them strength.

"It was also a refuge ... for the whole neighborhood," says Anthony Gambale. "I'd come out in the morning, and there would be people putting out new flowers, rearranging them."

The memorial stayed up, constantly renewed by family, friends, and strangers, until the service was held for "Gennie" at the end of September. Then the Gambales took it down, so they could embrace their daughter's life in their hearts and also move on.

"From the beginning I thought this was part of a plan that we can't understand - that some good has to come of it because God is good," says Maryann Gambale. "If people ... do one good thing every day to honor my daughter, then something good will come out of this terrible tragedy."

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