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In understanding the activities of Columbine survivors, it is useful to return to Worden's task model of mourning (Worden, 1991). He defined the third task as "adjusting to an environment in which the deceased is missing." What does this adjustment involve? In the simplest case--when a woman is widowed and her husband dies an anticipated death--it might involve learning or acquiring roles vacated by the deceased, such as managing the household finances, maintaining the garden, and even carpentry and plumbing. In the case of a sudden death, the adjustment is of a different nature and involves the struggle to fashion a new understanding of the world (Worden, 1991). Bowlby (1980) talked about "progress towards a recognition of his (the mourner's) changed circumstances, a revision of his representational models, and a redefinition of his goals in life." (p. 284)
Columbine parents approached task three in various ways. Tom Mauser and the Shoels devoted themselves to improving the deficits in society that they perceived as factors in their children's deaths. Misty Bernall reframed the circumstances of her daughter's death within a glorified Christian tradition. Other parents worked as a group to tear down the old library and build a new library, so that the world where the killings took place no longer existed.
Other mourners involved themselves in a variety of smaller grief projects, both spontaneous and planned. The process of decorating walls, shrines, and caskets allowed mourners to join together in a community of bereavement. The creation of art objects such as songs, poems, and Web sites gave those who wished for it an opportunity for solitary expression.
The nature of the grief projects often revealed the way the mourner conceptualized death. Adolescent projects such as the casket signings brought to mind yearbooks and graduation. For small children, as well as their parents, the closest reference for death may be the separation that comes at bedtime.
At Columbine and other rampage killings, one often saw children and parents leaving teddy bears at shrines and memorials (see for example McGurn, 1999, and Linenthal, 1998). Such objects signify the desire to provide comfort to someone left alone in the dark. Adults with a broader experience of death, will have a broader range of reference. Death still involves a transition and an unknown, but they have a different repertory of analogies to draw from.
In summary, survivors of sudden death are more likely than other mourners to search for ways of reconceptualizing the world in a meaningful way. Grief workers can help them in this process by guiding them toward "grief projects" involving artistic expression or social activism. This process often involves the complex manipulation of symbols. The worker should encourage the use of symbols and help interpret them. In fact, future research may show that this kind of grief work is best approached as a form of expressive arts therapy.
Finally it is important to restate here what has been stated so often before in the grief literature: People must be given adequate time and space to mourn.
Some journalists were openly critical of the way mourning was conducted during Columbine. Niebuhr and Wilgoren referred to it as part of a "recent cultural phenomenon in which private emotions are made vividly public" (1999) Although this is not overtly critical, the assumptive expression "private emotions" implies that grief should be kept private. Furthermore, the authors blamed the behavior on daytime television where "there's a lot of weeping and public revelation of emotion, a lot of grieving" (Farley quoted in Niebuhr & Wilgoren, 1999). Another journalist spoke of ... the increasing sense of spectacle, of feeling run amok... It may be that kitsch is the only language a generation raised on the camera can understand, where soft-focus production values gently subsume even the brute fact of murder into therapy. (McGurn, 1999, p. W13)
Yet traditionally, grieving the death of children and loved ones has been a public act and one of great passion and intensity. Private, controlled, "tasteful" mourning appears to be peculiar to postwar America. In fact, Columbine, Oklahoma City, and other tragedies have helped people rediscover how to mourn in the absence of adequate rites and traditions (Pine, 1976). What these journalists were really expressing was their discomfort with the intensity and pain of the emotions displayed, as well as with the novelty of innovative ritual.
Misty Bernall talked about the pressure to mourn quickly: Even during the first weeks... there were others who were eager to "get over all the fuss" and move on. Some time in early June, the Denver Post reported that many students were "getting pretty sick of all the memorials and stuff." "It's become a drag," one senior was quoted as saying. "I think it's time for us all to get on with our lives." (Bernall, 1999, pp. 135, 136)
Linenthal also expressed distress about the speed with which the community erected a memorial wall. "I worry when memorialization is done so quickly, as if by doing something you 'resolve' this kind of horror" (Edward Linenthal, Personal communications, March 17, 2000).
Reflection Exercise #11
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