The myth of mourning

"Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas" sign with memorials
Rachel Gregory/Staff

When I was 13 years old, my father was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. A mass had been living inside of him for eight years, unbeknownst to us, slowly depleting him of energy. I was in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina when I found out. My sister reacted immediately, hopping on a plane the next day to see my father, and she continued to sit at his bedside while he was hospitalized.

I, on the other hand, was frozen. I didn’t know what to feel, or say or do, and just a few years later, I still don’t remember what it felt like when I found out. I just remember what everyone else felt like, and sometimes I think that might be worse than having felt it myself. My memory is a compilation of observations. So much so, that I can’t recall those weeks in the hospital that inspired my sister to pursue nursing. The most I can remember is everyone repeating, “It was the size of two dinner rolls,” and not knowing whether that was bad or good.

“My memory is a compilation of observations.”

A crisis struck our family that day, and after his surgery, my father faced two more weeks in the hospital, nearly a year of chemo and now faces a lifetime of neuropathy. The initial scare of his mortality was over, but we could still feel the reverberations of “what if.” I wanted to be able to look forward and to cherish the time that I had left with my father, but I also couldn’t help but to look back to wonder why.

Everything that has happened to our family since then has been tinged by the fear of the unknown. I think everyone reaches that place of perpetual apprehension at some point, whether it’s because of their mortality or the mortality of those they love or maybe the mortality of a nation, endangered by our own.

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I went to Las Vegas 20 days after the deadliest mass shooting in American history to see a concert. I didn’t know what to expect, and I couldn’t figure out what I felt should be present after such a tragedy. I wondered what a city whose foundation was built upon people enjoying themselves, carefree and with reckless abandonment, would do in the face of something that called for more caution. I wondered if it would be right to drop everything and be debilitated or if it were better to continue on and show that Las Vegas would not allow this to destroy its soul.

When I got there, I was met by a mixture of both. Around the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign were memorials — 59 of them for the 58 people that died and an upside-down cross for the shooter. There were still souvenir photos taken, but there were also solemn expressions, and tears, probably more tears than have ever been shed in a city forever laughing. Signs with #VegasStrong were on almost every building, including a rather large and imposing one on the Mandalay Bay Hotel, where the shooter was that night.

I went to Las Vegas not knowing what to feel, myself. I was shaken by the shooting and confused as to how it could have happened. I felt that it confirmed my ever-present fear that something like this might happen, that something might rock the foundation of America again like 9/11, Sandy Hook and Pulse nightclub did. And while not all of these were attacks made by U.S. citizens, I feel that they and all other major attacks on U.S. soil alter our perception of our own safety.

What I saw in the news and elsewhere was that the cracks in American unity were growing deeper, when this should have brought us all together in sympathy and mourning. Many people were calling for gun rights to be restricted in order to prevent future possible attacks, met by others who found the response too “political” and lacking human emotion. Others just didn’t know what to think, but they were destroyed nonetheless.

“It is the inability to see others’ responses as legitimate, to peel back the layers of our psyches and realize that not everyone has to react just like us.”

But all were mourning. This is not just an issue of politics, or mass tragedies, or national pride, as many would like to simplify it to. Rather, it is a flaw in our humanity. It is the inability to see others’ responses as legitimate, to peel back the layers of our psyches and realize that not everyone has to react just like us.   

We have forgotten what sprouts from such a divide. We forget that our words and our actions mean so much. We see so many images and videos of disasters abroad that we’ve forgotten that the fear and hatred growing within our own hearts can manifest themselves in tragedies at home. Seeing the multifaceted fog of grief that had fallen over Las Vegas made it all the more apparent to me what tragedy does to individuals, to families, to communities and to nations. Some people take action, some people stop, some people continue on with their lives, but we all mourn: In our own particular, equally tortured ways, we mourn.

Contact Rachel Gregory at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @rakechill.

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