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Jewish World Review Feb. 8, 2000 /2 Adar I, 5760

Greg Crosby

Greg Crosby
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Aftermath of a Tragedy -- THE ALASKA AIRLINES Flight 261 crash which killed 88 passengers and crew was a terrible tragedy. Whenever a calamity of this proportion occurs, it represents untold grief to family and friends of the people who were killed, and it saddens and overwhelms the rest of us with a jarring reality that the same thing could happen to us or our loved ones at any time.

But while my heart goes out to those families who have been affected directly by this catastrophe I am puzzled and angered by what can best be described as an ethereal, grotesque danse macabre which has taken place in the aftermath of this horrible event.

Once upon a time when a multiple-death accident would occur, relatives would console themselves with other relatives, their friends, their clergy and their G-d. For the most part, this grieving period would happen quietly, behind closed doors. It was a solemn dignified time of personal sorrow, reflection and prayer. The rest of us would understand that the grieving family needed that period to be alone and we respected that and allowed them their quiet time. In our modern era of “feeling everyone’s pain” I’ve observed that increasingly this grieving period has become more open, more public and, if you’ll excuse me, a shade more theatrical. And as the late Jimmy Durante used to say, “Everyone wants to get into the act.” Almost from the first report of the disaster people started gathering at the beach.

As news unfolded that there would be no survivors, family members, friends, spiritual leaders, and the media began converging at ocean side, as close to the actual crash site as possible. Cameras clicked and video rolled as families held hands in a circle at the shore. For all intent and purposes, the sad story was over at that point. There certainly wasn’t any more “news” to report. All that was left to do was for authorities to recover any human remains, fish out the black box, and attempt to figure out the cause of the accident. But nobody went home. The show had just begun.

Each day brought new and expanded television coverage. Out came the parade of aviation experts, airline pilots, government spokespeople, psychologists, family councilors, and spiritual leaders. Each day the crowds at the beach grew -- and television was there. Grade school children made pilgrimages to the seaside carrying signs of support for the families. Flowers and letters, and poems were placed in the sand. People wept openly.

Suddenly politicians at every conceivable level from city councilmen to governors to presidential candidates to President Clinton were climbing over each other to be the first to show their compassion and comment on “this horrible tragedy which has wounded all of us as a nation.”

The families of the victims gathered for collected prayer on the beach. They embraced each other. They threw flowers into the ocean at sunset and watched as the surf carried them out to sea. The television cameras captured it all.

At Surfer’s Point in Ventura, more than 100 surfers donned wet-suits, and walking out waist deep into the ocean, joined hands in a circle. Dozens more surfers in Malibu floated out on their boards, dropped flower wreaths into the sea, and also held hands in a circle. In Oxnard, kayakers paddled out into the sea and formed a circle in the water while reciting the Lord’s Prayer and pointing their oars toward the sky as dozens of white doves were released from a boat nearby.

Meanwhile, eight-eight white doves were released after the memorial service on the Pepperdine University campus. The birds soared over the crowd of 1,000 who attended, and then headed north -- in the direction of the crash site.

White, pink and red roses were given to the friends and family attending the memorial and were later dropped over the crash site by two US Coast Guard helicopters. This was the biggest media event since last New YearsY2K celebrations. Additional memorials have been scheduled for later this week, check your TV listings.

California Gov. Gray Davis spoke to the families, friends, and media from a stage lined with eighty-eight lighted white candles, at the Pepperdine Malibu memorial held high on bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean where the plane went down. “Today all of California aches with you,” he said. “The men and women aboard Flight 261 were our friends, were our neighbors, were people we loved. And we share our grief with you, we share our love with you, and we share our prayers with you.”

Excuse me? Gov. Davis shares HIS grief? How wonderful of him to share HIS GRIEF with the families of those who were killed. Did he actually know anyone on board that flight? Who did he “love” that was on that plane?” What grief does Gov. Davis feel exactly? What love?

Just as no one can really “feel the pain” of anyone else, no one can really “feel the grief” of others. You might feel sympathy or compassion, or empathy, or sadness for someone who has experienced a loss, but to claim that you are somehow able to feel the same pain -- especially if you don’t know the people involved -- is not only not true, it’s incredibly patronizing, insensitive and insulting to the ones going through the real sorrow.

President Clinton in a statement read by US Department of Transportation secretary, Rodney Slater, had similar grief to share with the families. “...we hope that you can draw strength and comfort from one another and from the knowledge that Americans throughout our nation share your grief.”

Please understand, I feel very badly for the families of those who perished in that crash. I can’t imagine anything more devastating and shocking than to lose one or more family members in that horrific way. But is it possible for me to “share my grief” with the families who actually lost their loved ones? Is it MY grief? No, thank G-d, it isn’t, and I pray my family never, ever has to experience such a nightmare. This time, the grief is not mine. The true grief rightly belongs with the people who have experienced the loss, and no one else. Please let them have what is theirs -- and let them have it with quiet dignity in private.

Although, thank G-d, I do not share their grief, my heart and good thoughts are with them in their time of sorrow and loss.

JWR contributor Greg Crosby, former creative head for Walt Disney publications, has written thousands of comics, hundreds of children's books, dozens of essays, and a letter to his congressman. You may contact him by clicking here.


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© 2000, Greg Crosby