Empty Chairs and Empty Tables

I have been looking forward to the release on Christmas Day of Les Miserables, the movie.  I loved the play and all those revivals of accumulated casts typically televised on PBS for fund raising events, with Colm Wilkinson in the lead.  For years I listened to the CD in my car, usually singing along, plaintively vocalizing the sad song of Fontine, or the righteous ballad of Javert, or belting out “Can you hear the people sing, singing the songs of angry men….,” harkening back to the passion of my old college Viet Nam War protests.

So on New Years night, I decided it was an auspicious moment to take myself to the movies and just allow myself to wallow in the music and the drama, the protests and love and tragedies, the Les Miz Experience.  I was in total swoony love with Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean.  I was worried about Russell Crowe who looked terrified every time he had to sing.  Amanda Seyfried was a little annoying with her high pitched squeaky voice.  And Anne Hathaway sang her heartwrenching song in a performance that The New Yorker movie review noted she would probably parody herself in on Saturday Night Live.  But I overrode these little criticisms, and was completely engaged in the lavish sets and costumes and, of course, the music.  When Eddie Redmayne sang the beautiful “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables” I was totally entranced.

So entranced was I during his passionate rendition of the song Marius sings after his friends have died in the battle on the barricade, that I didn’t realize until the elderly man sitting next to me handed me a handkerchief (a real cloth handkerchief, not a tissue) that I was quietly sobbing.  For me, the singer was not an idealistic university student during the French Revolution, he was a little boy in an elementary school in Connecticut.  “There’s a grief that can’t be spoken, there’s a pain goes on and on, empty chairs and empty tables, now my friends are gone.”  Empty desks, empty cubbies, empty playground swings and empty monkey bars.

I have found during the past few weeks since December 14, 2012, that the grief has not been spoken; it is too tragic, too horrible and too frightening.   We had all talked ad infinitum about Super Storm Sandy, the deaths, destruction, unpreparedness, power outages, Global Warming, subways under water, boats in the streets.   But in various social settings, in conversations with friends or colleagues, I found no one wanted to bring up the deaths in Connecticut.  I talked to my daughters, desperate to assure them how much I loved them, wanting to be sure I could console them.  Our ritual “I love you”s at the end of every phone call, xoxoxo’s at the end of every email took on deeper meanings as I thought of the last goodbyes of so many parents and their children.  But most of my grief was silent, unspoken.

I wanted to call my friend and colleague Teri Covington, Director of the National Center for  Child Death Review.  We had worked together on the review of child deaths in Nevada, a public health initiative to analyze each death and the circumstances, to make recommendations, to prevent future deaths, to “Keeping Kids Alive” as the Center’s tag line reads.  But what was the analysis of these child deaths?  It was all too simple:  innocent children, a violently disturbed young man, semi automatic fire arms.

“Oh, my friends, my friends don’t ask me what your sacrifice was for.

Empty chairs and empty tables.”

I didn’t call.  I quietly grieved.

On the website, grief.com, sponsored by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, the phrase Public Grief is used and explained.   It is that pervasive grief that impacts an entire population:  the aftermath of 9/11, the massacres in Rwanda, the killings at Columbine, the shootings and deaths in a movie theater in Colorado, Gabrielle Giffords shot and members of her staff and constituency dead.  Through the media or direct contact with those affected, we are all affected.  Public grief is like any other public health epidemic, it ravages our bodies and emotions, impacts on our abilities to function, disrupts sleep and eating, it causes literal heartbreak.  But there is no typical arc of a disease outbreak.   And, there is no vaccine to prevent the damage, or surgery to correct, or medicine to treat.  The outcomes are as varied as each individual’s fingerprints.  Some will be energized to enact changes in laws or policies.  Some will sink into deep depression.  Some will reach out to the victims with love and tokens and memorials.  Some will find an artistic expression.  Some will provide counseling; some will receive it.  Some will advocate for teachers and school personnel to have guns.  Some will seem unaffected and will suffer emotional pain in years to come.  Some will advocate for the mentally ill and the disabled so that these do not become labels of fear or mistrust.  Some will grieve and join together with others and heal.  Some will quietly privately grieve. The pain goes on and on in a myriad of ways.

But I wonder what is grief? One definition is:  grief is a profound emotional process with very real biological symptoms that can endure for months.  But there is disagreement as to whether or not it is a “disease.”  The argument continues in regard to grief’s inclusion in the 2013 DSM:

Is grief a disease? That is one of the crucial questions psychologists are asking as the American Psychiatric Association revamps its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), used by millions of mental health professionals to diagnose patients, for a fifth edition due out in 2013.

A group of psychiatrists have spearheaded a movement to include ongoing grief as a disorder, to be labeled “complicated” or “prolonged grief.” Others have proposed, separately, that a mourner can be labeled clinically depressed only two weeks after the loss of a loved one. The problem with both potential changes is that more people’s grief will be diagnosed as abnormal or extreme, in a culture that already leads mourners to feel they need to just “get over it”. (slate.com)

The psychiatrists and psychologists can argue on, but I don’t know, is grief a disease? An epidemic? A private emotional struggle?  I am not sure this research helped me at all to know what grief is, I only know how it feels.  But I do know what grief is not.  It is not despair.  It is not revenge.  It is not blame.  It is not a justification for violence.

I don’t know how it is that someone who suffered such a great loss could also give all of us a great gift.  It is as though the person with the most extreme pain is also the person able to provide a healing process for the rest of the population.  Robbie Parker, Emilie Parker’s father, was able to speak of grief, his grief, his family’s grief, the grief we all feel.  He spoke of his daughter’s beauty and generosity of spirit. He spoke of kindness, humility and compassion, and the inspiration for us to love each other.  He gave us a very public message from his own heart to help all of us begin to heal from our public grief and our own private broken hearts.  And as I think of his words I am reminded of a card I keep on my desk that says:

“…I swear I will not dishonor my soul with hatred, but offer myself humbly as a guardian of nature, as a healer of misery, as a messenger of wonder, as an architect of peace….”*

The chairs and tables will remain empty forever.  All we can do as we grieve is to try to be architects building a kinder, more compassionate, more loving world around them.

And to never forget to tell our children how much we love them.




*from a poem by Diane Ackerman; cards and posters produced by and available from Syracuse Cultural Workers, Box 6367, Syracuse, NY   13217