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.