ANYTIME A PUBLIC figure dies, there are spontaneous vigils, piles of flowers and stuffed toys heaped at the star’s home or in a town square. But these outpourings of public grief aren’t reserved only for the rich and famous. In communities across the country, everyday people hold vigils when a child is abducted or a family murdered in a senselessly random act of violence. Sometimes a prayer is murmured. Often, it’s an opportunity for neighbors to mourn their shared loss.
Getting the message right in public grieving and memorializing hardly demands immense wealth or high-minded, thoughtful analysis. I’m heartened by impromptu candlelight vigils in the rain and messy memorials, because grief isn’t organized or tidy. On vacation in Hawaii last summer, boogie boards jammed in the sand as makeshift headstones seemed to line the Big Island’s Puna Coast, glittering stones and leis assembled at the base of each monument. “Sail away,” one paddleboard inscription read. Beside it, a laminated sheet of photos was tacked to a palm tree. On some of the more menacing lava rock cliffs, where it was clear more than a few had perished trying to catch a deadly wave, entire burial grounds with a dozen granite headstones were lined up, matching benches facing the row of markers.
While those cenotaphs, like the white crosses along desert highways and at urban intersections, could be troubling (so much sadness out in the open), we become more empathetic when we’re forced to slow down, reminded of our mortality and how loss—or even just the threat of impermanence—permeates most of our lives.
Where I live, in San Francisco, there have been several high-profile memorials this year for homeless people who passed away. San Francisco has a high rate of homelessness, an epidemic happening concurrent with the latest technology boom and its resulting regional wealth. It isn’t uncommon in zip codes like my own, with staggering median incomes, to see people sleeping sprawled on the sidewalks or tucked under the eaves of a designer boutique. We are extreme examples of the haves and the have-nots. We live, often literally, side by side. And despite this ever-widening gap, when one of us is no longer there, we notice.
Spontaneous shrines raise awareness, but when you’re honoring a group of people routinely ignored, you can always do more. St. Anthony’s, one of the churches in town known for its robust daily-free-meals program, hosts an interfaith memorial every December solstice, which is also National Homeless Person’s Memorial Day. The candlelight vigil and short readings honor homeless people who passed away the previous year in San Francisco. That number tends to be above 100. Next year, I’ll light a candle for Mark, a man I fed for a year before he vanished from my block. There’s someone new in his place, and I feed him, too. There’s no marker for Mark, no visible sign he was ever there.
Loss is like that. It tends to be invisible, only haunting those who know the significance of a particular street corner. Individual expressions of grief tend to be tucked away; those that aren’t shock others the same way we sometimes shock ourselves by weeping in public or being overcome by the smallest gesture. Collectively, we’re all allowed to mourn within a predetermined window of time, in a designated place, such as a cemetery. Putting flowers on a tombstone doesn’t disrupt the natural order of a day, except maybe for a groundskeeper intent on mowing the grass near a particular plot.
If you live in a city with a high percentage of bike commuters, you’ve probably seen eerily white bicycles placed where motorists struck cyclists. Ghost bikes began appearing 11 years ago in New York City. Shortly thereafter, an activist named Chris Phelan launched the first of many annual Rides of Silence, a somber, Critical Mass-style procession to honor those who have died, as well as cyclists who were injured but survived. These types of active memorials tend to have an obvious and necessary advocacy component. In this case, greater awareness about bicycle-related fatalities could lead to increased attention paid by motorists, and remind cyclists to ride safely.
In 2013, to mark the 10th anniversary of the first Ride of Silence, there were 372 Rides of Silence in all 50 States and in 26 countries. The next worldwide Ride of Silence (rideofsilence.org) is slated for May 21. The organized group rides are slow, no more than 12 miles per hour. It’s appropriate. Grief isn’t quick. By contrast, death is often far too rapid, like a thief in the night.
Lack of a sanctioned memorial can also cause distress. Years after the Green River Killer murdered at least four dozen Seattle-area women, many of them alleged sex workers, the victims’ families are still fighting for the right to a public memorial. Sex work mirrors the way we treat grief: something to be ignored in hopes it might go away. Seattleites already fought hard for a memorial honoring their city’s deceased homeless residents, which was erected in 2012 in a city park. In both cases, local advocates faced uphill battles as they worked to commemorate people who are routinely pushed to the fringes and sometimes intentionally forgotten.
When I talk to friends about memorials, ego inevitably comes up. Some of us immediately launch into debating whether we’d want to be memorialized, to have flowers put on a street corner by our loved ones. Others of us talk about what it would be like to create and maintain the public altar, our grieving forced upon strangers, a ritual we’d hope could sustain our need for a protracted, sorrowful practice.
In these conversations, ritualizing and memorializing is typically not about answering the age-old question of what would Jesus do. Instead, our concerns center on what we would do. We don’t think about advocacy, because we don’t plan for senseless tragedy or premature loss. Instead, we talk about what we’d hope would be done in our names, because most of us are privileged enough to never have to make that call, never have to silently march to a spot to tearfully place a marker, never have to figure out whether and how to force fellow citizens to confront the public nature of grief.
Across our spectrum of disparate beliefs, we agree that rituals have meaning. The older we get, the closer we move toward losing parents and grandparents (if we haven’t already). Many of us have settled into partnerships we hope will last until our deaths in old age, friendships we hope will sustain us until we’ve grown apart or moved into the next unpredictable phase of our lives. Few can conceive of the horror that is burying a child. We occasionally lose our pets and agree that the recovery process can seem to last as long as any related to a human death.
When a loved one dies after an extended illness, many mourn the absence while learning to fill the time. Rituals we create after a sudden tragedy or a protracted period of unknowing fill a different sort of void, a wound ripped open suddenly rather than one we’ve learned to tend to over time.
Every method has purpose: laying flowers on a marker, spray-painting old bikes, or raising money for a memorial to honor the most overlooked and forgotten among us. If we agree that life has meaning, we can agree that its loss is deeply profound, an emptiness we all share in the course of being humans who care about one another. How we choose to cope and support one another in our individual struggles is just one more opportunity to be our most compassionate selves.
Brittany Shoot is a Sojourners contributing writer.
Image: Candles, Vorobyeva / Shutterstock.com