Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Half-Life of Grief

Yesterday was the 21st anniversary of the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. The event that we here in Central New York remember as killing "35 Syracuse University students, and a couple from Clay." But as we've reached the point now where there are students at SU who weren't even born when Flight 103 went down, I've come to wonder about the "half-life of grief." How long do we feel that we have to remember? When will we finally be allowed to forget, without seeming to be disrespectful to those who were killed? When will we finally be allowed to no longer define ourselves by one terrible day, and to finally let it become history?

As I’ve thought about our “one terrible day,” I thought about Kent OH and Bath MI, and how they’ve handled their respective memories through the years.

I was in 8th grade on May 4, 1970, and I can't hear the names "Kent State" or "Kent OH" without thinking of that "one terrible day," and the famous picture that was on the front of every newspaper. But almost 40 years later, how many people are still on campus, or in town for that matter, who were there and still remember? Any faculty or staff members have long since retired or died, most students have long since moved away, and I wonder how much of the town itself has "turned over" since then. In addition, not only did the events of May 1970 happen long before any of the current students were born, it's getting close to happening before the parents of those students were born.

How are Kent and the University handling the memory now? Are they are still actively trying to keep it alive, or are they letting it take its natural course of fading - much like the memories of students killed during WWI, WWII, Korea, and even Vietnam. At some point the memories have to fade. We can't remember and hold onto every tragedy. It's not good for us...or those we remember.

Which brings us to Bath MI. I had never heard of it until the random Wikipedia "article of the day" brought up a piece about the Bath School Disaster of 1927. Then I got to thinking of how the people in this town have handled things in the 80-odd years since. Are they still actively "honoring the memory" of their "one terrible day," or are they trying to get past it?

I wrote to people in both towns, and only heard from Bath. I guess it really does pay to "ask a librarian," because that's exactly who I asked.

The response was that Bath does not want to be solely identified by that tragedy, and tries to play it down. There is a memorial in town, but no big formal observances. The youngest victims would’ve been 89 years old this year, and the remaining four or five people in town who still remember steadfastly refuse to be interviewed about it, and want to be left alone. It is history, and they wish it to be left as such.

At some point the memory of our "one terrible day" will fade, except for a few people still directly affected by it, and a few historians. It has to. It will become a historical footnote much like the Split Rock explosion - something that happened here, but doesn't define us. At some point it will have happened before the parents of the incoming class of SU students were born.

Hmm...maybe you remember every year for the first 10 years. Then every five until you get to 30, and every ten until you get to 50. At that point, most people with any ties to it will have been long gone anyway. Then you have one last observance at 100 years, and you put it to bed. Maybe that's what the half-life of grief is.

The time when the parents of the incoming class will have been born after our "one terrible day" will be around 2032, just six years short of the 50-year mark, and I'll be 76 then. I hope I'm still around to see the day.


  1. Hi Keith, Doug started at Kent State in 1975, and has lived here ever since. I sent him the link to this post; maybe he can provide some insight.

    As someone who has lived here in Kent for three years now, the town seems to be thriving as well as any college town...

    Happiest of holidays to you and the family.

  2. "May the Forth be with you," is still a saying around Kent every Spring. I remember the day well, and the Martial Law declared, though I was just shy of 13 years old.
    In 1976 -- only six years after the tragedy, there was a student protest about building a new gym near the site where one of the students died. On the eve of May 4th that year, the Kent cops closed the downtown drinking scene (which is where the riots had started in 1970). I was there -- drinking. The police were out in full-force complete with riot gear and brandished tear-gas guns. I guess they wanted to "nip it in the bud." Funny, at the time, 1970 seemed like ancient history, but when viewed from the perspective of nearly 40 years later, it had just happened. Your estimation of the half-life of grief is probably pretty accurate. There has been some kind of commeration every year on May 4th in Kent, but the upcoming 40th will no doubt be a big one.

  3. Keith:
    I still remember singing along to the Crosby Stills Nash and Young song, "Four Dead in Ohio"
    Several years ago I visited Kent State for a conference. I looked all over for the monument. Finally I had to ask directions. You wouldn't know where it is until you were on top of it. It is a very plain monument, simple granite blocks. The only thing with a name on it wasn't much bigger than a sheet of paper and was hidden under a bush. Kent State obviously would like us all to forget what they are most famous for.
    John N

  4. Hi, Keith; Bill Johnson, rugratter, here. Just letting you know that, after your comments to my Facebook ruminations about Kent State, I went back and found this blog entry and read it top to bottom. It is excellent, and I have taken the liberty of linking to it in my own BlogSpot blog, "Grayblog" (I go by the handle "Graybeard" in several on-line communities). I'd appreciate your own comments there, justso that somebody will read the durn thing! :-) Link is http://graybeardblog.blogspot.com/2014/05/tin-soldiers-and-nixon-coming.html . Hope all is well with you...