Remember 30: Power of grieving

Editor’s note: This is one of a series of pieces commemorating the 30th anniversary of the École Polytechnique murders. Read other Western community members’ reflections on the lessons that still echo – and even on those lessons still ignored – three decades out from that tragic day.

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I was in my final year of high school on Dec. 6, 1989 – a student, learning what it meant to be a feminist – and these 14 students had just been murdered, specifically targeted because they were women. I remember being shocked and thinking, “I’m about to go off to university, where smart women are a ‘threat.’”

Psychologist Ronnie Janoff-Bulman says we all hold three core assumptions: the world is generally a good place; the world generally holds meaning; and I have value. When something traumatic happens and one of those assumptions is shattered, all those assumptions are cast into doubt. We begin to grieve. As Canadians, particularly for Canadian women, Dec. 6 was one of those assumption-shattering days.

Part of that grief narrative, then, is asking ourselves how we can feel safe again, how we can trust again. We are forced – almost continuously, because grief and loss are not one-time events – to reconstruct meaning. It is impossible to make sense of an event that’s so horrifying, so we then have to ask, ‘How do we inject meaning into it, how do we bring some good or some insight from the grotesque? Is that even possible?’

That’s when people build memorials or start movements or fund scholarships. And it’s why, when people come together for rituals and ceremonies, it can be an important thing. There is community and individual sorrow, and if people are able to share in community, it can help to share that personal burden of sorrow – they can know, ‘I am not alone in this.’

Through 20 years of being a therapist and in teaching in classrooms, I’ve learned a lot about the power of grieving and about the consequences when we do not.

These horrific events occur against the background of a death-denying culture. As a result, when deaths are not adequately acknowledged, the message is to ‘get over it’ and people may not feel they are entitled to grieve.

Ken Doka, author of Disenfranchised Grief and Death and Spirituality, writes of instrumental grievers – people who focus on tasks to work through their sorrow – and intuitive grievers, who overtly show emotion and seek connection.

It concerns me when, bombarded by terrible world events, the societal message is that we do not need to grieve at all. People may become desensitized to some of the most horrific events of their lifetimes. Forty-nine people shot to death in in the Pulse Nightclub in Florida; 51 murdered at two mosques in New Zealand; 12 students and teachers killed at a high school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas.

And 14 young women at École Polytechnique on Dec. 6, 1989.

Yet, unless you identify with one of the groups targeted – unless you are gay or a Muslim or a teenager or a woman – you may not  feel vulnerable or feel like a potential target, you don’t ‘need’ to grieve. You just move on and scroll through. There is a horrific world of difference between these events and the latest celebrity gossip – but algorithms that push both tragedy and fluff into our newsfeed are indifferent to that fact.

American neuroscientist David Eagleman refers to three types of death. The first, he says, is when the body stops functioning. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. And the third death is the moment when you have been forgotten, when your name has been spoken for the last time.

This last death, the erasure of the memory of someone’s very existence, is deeply distressing for those who continue to grieve. So this year, I do hope people will remember, and I do hope we say their names. Because death and grieving are essential to our humanity – and if these tragedies are at all instructive, they show us sorrow often doesn’t bring us where we want to be but, instead, where we need to be.

Thanatologist Carrie Arnold is a King’s University College professor who researches and teaches about grief.