A sensitive awareness–honoring the grieving after the Charleston church massacre

It’s been eight days since nine people were shot to death in a Charleston church. The past week has been a sad one for my home state of South Carolina, but seeing people from all sorts of backgrounds join together to mourn and to show support for the families of the nine has been encouraging.

Political operatives have also taken the opportunity to capitalize on the events surrounding those deaths, trumpeting their positions on race and gun rights. I’ve worked in and around politics—taking advantage of an event to advance a particular agenda is to be expected. I’d hoped that would come later.

But the massacre—and the response—has prompted me to revisit etiquette, and specifically what manners mean in the context of grief.

Various editions of Emily Post’s “Etiquette” devote a detailed section to grieving and giving condolences.

I love what Post says about manners. “Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others.”

How should we treat people who are grieving? With a sensitive awareness of their feelings, meeting their physical needs for food and rest, and their emotional needs for comfort and support.

Joan Didion wrote in “The Year of Magical Thinking”—

“In the end Emily Post’s 1922 etiquette book turned out to be as acute in its apprehension of this other way of death, and as prescriptive in its treatment of grief, as anything else I read. I will not forget the instinctive wisdom of the friend who, every day for those first few weeks, brought me a quart container of scallion-and-ginger congee from Chinatown. Congee I could eat. Congee was all I could eat.”

Didion’s husband died suddenly while her daughter was battling a life-threatening illness.

At times I feel like we have become hypersensitive in this society. But using death to advance a political agenda—any agenda—so soon after death happens is upsetting. For some, the massacre presented an opportunity to advance an agenda—take the flag down, expand gun rights, limit gun rights.

But can’t all this wait a while longer?

At a time like this I’d rather focus on the gestures of support and forgiveness. On heart-shaped tributes and unity chains. Tomorrow will provide plenty of time to work out our differences.

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