It's become a ritual, a rite observed here in America. After a cataclysmic event, something so profoundly tragic that is shakes us as a country, those at the heart of the tragedy gather together for a very public, highly publicized event. We've seen it so often, the faces of shocked and battered survivors, grieving families and a heartbroken community suddenly seated beside Senators and members of Congress and the President and First Lady, together mourning some unimaginable occurance under the glare of the worldwide press.
But for those who watch this ritual unfold from afar, at a distance from the grieving, it's easy to wonder whether this rite, this ritual, does anything to help those affected. It can be cathartic for the nation but what of those who don the clothes of mourning in front of the eyes of the country and world, those whose lives are changed forever. Does this ritual bring healing to those who need it most?
Now we know.
Before I continue I would be remiss if I did not add a personal note. Even though I wore a press pass to the memorial service for the victims of the mass shooting that occured January 8th, I could not, and cannot, maintain distance or retreat into a third person voice to report it because I'm a Tucsonan. I'm grieving. The shocked and battered community gathering together to don the clothes of mourning now includes me.
In adobe houses under sundrenched skies, in homes surrounded by the Sonoran desert, in retirement communities that stretch across this sprawling southwest town, the residents of Tucson Arizona watched the memorial service held on the University of Arizona campus in honor of those killed and wounded in the mass shooting of January 8th. Over 23,000 of us sat in the McKale Memorial Center or in Memorial Stadium next door and shared our grief with our neighbors.
George Hanson was one of those in attendance. A Tucsonan for 16 years, conductor and Musical Director of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra since 1996, Hanson led the orchestra as it performed at the memorial service. Noting that music has a special way of reaching people, Hanson said the orchestra was anxious to do their part to help their community heal. Hanson personally found the memorial service of great help in dealing with his own emotions as a friend of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who remains in critical condition following the attack.
"The memorial service helped Tucson as a community take a huge leap forward toward healing," Hanson said. When the President broke the news that Congresswoman Giffords had just opened her eyes for the first time, Hanson said, with great emotion, "I could almost watch the healing happen on people's faces, right in front of me."
Mike and Chris Dayton were there too. Chris Dayton was Giffords' second grade teacher and is very fond of her former student, who she characterized as an outgoing, vivacious "brilliant" little girl. Dayton found the memorial service "deeply moving," especially the President's remarks.
"I was not only comforted (by President Obama's speech) I was inspired," she said," to do more for our community."
Pam Powers was at McKale Center too. A local political blogger, Powers expressed the hope that the President's speech would help "temper the hate speech, racism, and scapegoating we've seen nationwide, and particularly in Arizona."
Not all Tucsonans who wanted to could get into the memorial service, but those who did not attend also now see this ritual through different eyes. As active members of the Democratic party Mariana Spiers and husband Steve Gall are close to Giffords and her staff, and knew one of the victims well. Watching the memorial service on television and seeing faces of friends and associates helped her.
Spier said at times she felt like she knew everyone there, although that was impossible. But she added, "it's probably the 'I belong here' feeling."
Peggy Hazard, too, now knows how it feels to be at the center of a nationwide tragedy instead of watching from a distance. A thirty nine year resident of Arizona, a Tucsonan for twenty nine years with deep family, personal and professional connections here, Hazard has struggled to understand how such a tragedy could occur in her community. She's been overwhelmed with emotions as she's talked to friends who would have normally attended Giffords "Congress on your Corner" event, and was stricken to learn that one of the victims was her son's childhood friend. Watching the memorial from her home was healing and cathartic for Hazard, and she was touched that President Obama came out to help her stricken community.
It was not just the President's words but also his demeanor and behavior that affected Hazard. She was moved by "the authentic display of emotion and caring on the faces of Obama and his wife, and the way both of them supported Mark Kelly and Daniel Hernandez."
Some in the national press have criticized the memorial event and Tucson itself, saying the spontaneous bursts of applause were inappropriate for a memorial, even questioning the choice of venue. George Hanson did not agree.
"I don't know if there was a more appropriate venue for Tucson," he said, noting that the size of the crowd was so large as to necessitated the additional use of the stadium next to McKale Center. He felt the crowd's reaction was in keeping with his community's natural demeanor: "All that cheering was just Tusconans expressing themselves the way Tucsonans do."
When the massive crowd roared and jumped to their feet when surgeons from University Medical Center arrived to attend the service, many clad in their white coats, Hanson not only approved of the thunderous applause but joined it, calling the crowd's pride and gratitude toward those doctors who have been helping the victims "absolutely the most natural reaction."
So as odd as the ritual may seem, this thing we do here as a nation when tragedy strikes, this expressing of grief so publicly, this joining of anonymous neighbors with the leaders of the nation, it helped. I can tell you, it helped. Being together, offering strength to each other, holding each other and hugging each other, it helped. We were grieving but we were hopeful for something better than the darkness that engulfed us. We were there as Tucsonans, as neighbors, as friends. That was what we showed the world. And it helped.
Now we know.