Opportunity and the hierarchy of grief

If Rescue Me doesn’t win an Emmy for its writing in this episode there is no justice in the world.

Last night Athenae’s Obsession with Denis Leary’s Creation hit on something I think is worthy of discussion going into the Grave Dancer’s Union this week in New York. Especially since Miserable Failure plans to watch the convention from a firehouse.

Poet Charlotte Mayerson wrote, after losing a son to AIDS, “That I don’t own his death/Is a required course/His friends teach.” Rescue Me last night dealt with a firefighter who sat in a room full of people who said they were traumatized by Sept. 11, 2001, though they were miles away, and he told them what trauma really meant: He was there, he lost friends and family. You weren’t, and didn’t. So you don’t get to have the feelings you claim to have. You don’t get to talk out loud about this stuff and get the sympathy you want. You don’t own that day. And it wasn’t an admirable sentiment, it wasn’t perfectly cathartic and relatable. But it was real.

There is a vicious relativity to grief, an innate selfishness that says, I am the one who loves the most, therefore I am the only one who feels the pain this way. Whoever first said that misery loves company never understood the warmth one feels in wrapping that privileged status around oneself and standing as the special one, the one who has the most right to feel something, to feel deepest. At my grandfather’s funeral, someone came up to me and said, “You know you have to take care of your mother. She’s the one who will take this the hardest.” My mother, in turn, was told by someone else to take care of her mom. There was a terrible hierarchy of who, based on relationships to the dead, was allowed to feel to what degree. And it wasn’t entirely wrong.

I have a co-worker who went around after 9/11 saying that that day’s events “gave my life so much more meaning.” One of my mother’s friends enthused that “it’s made me love my family more.” Bully for all of them. I don’t know why you need a national tragedy to give your life meaning or make you love your family, but whatever turns your crank, I guess. I’m happy you’re hugging your kids, no matter what it is that reminded you you need to do that.

No one person, or even any one group of people, has exclusive rights to feel anything about Sept. 11, but it’s worth reminding that while no one owns that day, to some worse things happened than to others. We can be united and sympathetic to those who have lost, we can be unnerved, but the real meaning of that day belongs to those who lost family, who lost friends and colleagues. It belongs to the real people with holes in their lives, not just the people who saw it on TV.

That day made President Bush a war president. It made his party the guardians of the right ways to think and to talk about the unthinkable, the inexpressible. And this week, he’ll give an acceptance speech littered with references to the mass graves in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania. Make no mistake about the choice of venue: His words will be a national eulogy at a national funeral. But only some of the mourners will have known the deceased.

All are welcome to pay their respects, I’m sure. But those who are just there to gawk, or to give their own lives meaning, should have the grace and the dignity to step out of the way when actual family and friends of the dead come forward.

A.