Finding a Star: How OUR TOWN is Helping Me Grieve

When I first heard the news about the horrific event at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday, I was deeply saddened. I thought of the many tragedies that have occurred during my lifetime, and grew melancholy at the thought of adding another one to the list on a seemingly ordinary day. As more and more information about the event became clear, and the number of those killed grew higher and higher, I went from being sad to being stunned. I sat at my desk watching updates via Twitter, thinking about the fact that unlike previous events, the victims here this time were almost entirely children. I grew angry as I thought about my own happy elementary school memories, and tried to process how the lives of the children fortunate enough to survive would be forever altered. I wasn’t in denial, but I wasn’t (and still don’t believe I am) in a place of acceptance. It simply couldn’t be true.

I paced around my room. I tried to write, which usually helps me sort out my emotions, but I just stared blankly at the page. I tried to distract myself with homework, but I simply couldn’t. I had to do something. I felt helpless. Everything was beyond my control.

I finally put on my coat and left. I walked through the chilly streets of Boston as the sun set, not thinking, letting my feet take me wherever they wanted to. I ended up at Trident, my favorite bookstore, and I settled in a back corner and just started reading whatever I could find. Title after title ended up in my lap, as I blindly leafed through the pages. I had to catch my breath. I had to force myself to calm down. I had to accept my helplessness.

Eventually, I managed the courage to walk home. It was dark and chilly, which somehow seemed appropriate. I still wasn’t any more resolved, but could push through.

The next twenty-four hours were spent trying to go about business as usual, whatever that means. I spent time with friends, took two finals, sent emails. Underneath everything was a heaviness in my heart that no distraction could shake completely. A friend is from the area and went to that elementary school. Her photos of the memorials and her own reconciling with the event made everything more personal for me; this wasn’t just a tragedy that happened somewhere off in a faraway land. This was something much larger, something that we collectively are going to be working to come to terms with for some time.

I read articles, I watched the news, I sat and wished for some understanding. This type of event wasn’t supposed to happen here. Years of American hubris have instilled this idea that we’re much better than that—such tragedies and massacres happen a comfortable distance away. Yet the signs were there, and we missed them.  Collectively, I thought, we are to blame—those who have been fighting to ensure our safety from such events weren’t working hard enough. I wasn’t working hard enough. Why hadn’t this been a greater priority in my life? Couldn’t I have done something to prevent this?

I’m not much of a talker when it comes to emotional challenges like these. I have to step back and figure things out for myself. I wasn’t interested in anyone else’s opinion, because at the end of the day, we’re still here, and our parents aren’t going through what the victims’ families are enduring. I sat and walked and asked question after question to the universe. I hated myself for not being so affected by previous shootings. I hated my government for not working harder to prevent this. I hated a lot of things about the world.

Last night, I went to see David Cromer’s production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. I had never read nor seen the play, and I was excited because I had only heard excellent things about this staging. Hopefully a night at the theatre would help me calm my nerves.

The similarities between the tragedy at Sandy Hook and the community of Grover’s Corners are astounding. I sat in my seat watching such a real portrayal of a community enduring multiple hardships, working together to come to an understanding of a tragic death. The event in Our Town doesn’t remotely compare to what happened to those children and teachers, but the sentiment was at least a hopeful one. If the Webb family and George could find some reconciliation, perhaps the families in Connecticut stood a chance.

I allowed myself to be swept into the story. I was completely enamored with this simple and profound production until an exchange in the final scene brought me quickly back to reality:

“Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? –every, every minute?”

“No.”

In a flash my thoughts were back in Sandy Hook elementary, the children who didn’t think they were responsible for realizing their lives that would soon be stolen from them. The families, the community, the rest of the country suddenly caring about people they didn’t know existed. The thought that so many who at one point had the potential of living very full lives simply…didn’t.

Tears welled in my eyes as other characters began chastising Emily in ways that seemed to ring entirely too true.

“Yes, now you know. Now you know! That’s what it was to be alive. To move about in a cloud of ignorance; to go up and down trampling on the feelings of those…of those about you. To spend and waste time as though you had a million years. To be always at the mercy of one self-centered passion, or another. Now you know—that’s the happy existence you wanted to go back to. Ignorance and blindness.”

Tears were streaming down my face as I listened to this monologue. That couldn’t be true. There had to be another way.

As if the result of my willpower, Mrs. Gibbs suddenly responded:

“Simon Stimson, that ain’t the whole truth and you know it. Emily, look at that star. I forget its name.”

Emily looked at the star, and I tried to find a star of my own. Some sort of answer in this tragedy…

“A star’s mighty good company.”

“Yes. Yes, ‘tis.”

“…Sh, dear. Just rest yourself.”

Maybe there was some sort of reason or solution after all…maybe there was a peace or a greater understanding to come through such sadness. Maybe.

“They don’t understand, do they?”

“No, dear. They don’t understand.”

But I did. At least some of it. About cherishing each moment and those around me. About doing whatever is in my power to prevent such a tragedy from repeating. About spreading love, wholly and honestly.

I still don’t understand much about what happened in that school in Friday. I doubt I ever will…and if there is a satisfying answer out there, it’s certainly not going to be found in a 100-year-old play. But what became clear to me, as I watched actors look at an imaginary star while the lights faded and tears streamed down my cheeks, was that Newtown, Connecticut is our town, all of our town. Those children are our children, and we owe it to them to make things better. I don’t know much about the past three days, but I know that.

Wilder is right, a star is mighty fine company. I pray that those children and teachers find comfort in the stars, that their families and our mourning nation find peace in the night sky, and that we don’t ignore the stars that guide us towards a better future.

“You get a good rest, too. Good night.”

Maybe not tonight, Mr. Wilder, but with any luck, it won’t be too long in the future.

44 thoughts on “Finding a Star: How OUR TOWN is Helping Me Grieve

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