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Healing a Nation & the Obama’s on Grief Etiquette

By Lynn Isenberg

It’s my understanding that many people have criticized the president and made him responsible for the “undignified tone” of the ceremony. The tone of the ceremony was set by the President of the University of Arizona and by the people who attended, not President Obama who sat and stood and spoke with dignity and respect for the fallen. As I watched the President of the University speak I saw an odd confluence of facial expressions.

I was conscious of this as I watched him speak. I was conscious of the cheers in the background when he spoke, when he smiled at his university fans. I was conscious that the tone and energy of the circumstances was amiss. But when I looked to President Obama for protocol, for grief etiquette, there it was. Placed firmly and safely like a beacon of light and hope and inspiration. He sat still. He did not smirk. He did not cheer. He nodded in respect for the fallen. He stood in peace. He stood as a leader. And he spoke with his heart. I looked, too, to Michelle Obama, for leadership in grief etiquette. What do you do? What do you say? She held the arm of Mr. Giffords. He held hers. They held each others hands tightly, supporting each others personal and public grief. Griever and Grief Witness. This gave me strength. Seeing her hold his hand. Seeing him squeeze hers tightly in response as if to say, “thank you, thank you for holding me up in this moment of extreme grief and pain.” And I wanted to say, thank you, too. President Obama’s speech was beautiful. He celebrated the lives of the innocent so that their lives, their purpose, as human beings and as citizens of this country were not in vain. He even made it a point to acknowledge the heroic acts of those who took action to nurse Congresswoman Giffords, to stop Laughlin when his gun jammed and to retrieve the ammunition so greater catastrophe could be halted. So to those who judge President Obama for setting the tone as unruly, look again. Who is setting the tone? And why? Grief is an uncomfortable feeling. And people don’t know how to grieve, not that there’s a road map on this, there isn’t. We all grieve in our own way. Some in solitude, some in the comfort of another’s arms, some in groups, some with a grief buddy and sometimes it’s a combination of all those things, but mostly it’s acknowledgment of our loss and the permission to give ourselves time to heal. I love what President Obama said and I hope it provided comfort to the family and friends of those who died that day. The President’s acknowledgment of their lives in the context of their personal lives and in the context of their greater social contributions in the past, present, and future made an indelible impact regardless of the tone set by others. I choose to focus on President Obama and Michelle Obama and watch them as kind-hearted thoughtful souls helping heal the nation and guide the country through a collective conscious sharing that gives meaning to the lives we lost that day.

Lynn Isenberg
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