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Images of Grief

Essayist Roger Rosenblatt looks at the images of sorrow and loss on television news.

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    Since September 11, there has been a continuous display of grief and sorrow on television– various, episodic, fractional.

    Like a slideshow, it appears suddenly between the Olympics and the Grammys.


    We will take loss of life and I'm sad for loss of life, and today we've the mom and dad of a brave soldier who lost his life, and a brother. God bless you.


    Pictures of the families of soldiers killed in Afghanistan; a picture of Andrea Yates in shackles, after she killed her five children, or of her husband on the way to testify in court; a picture of reporter Danny Pearl, or of his widow; a picture of the family of the woman mauled to death by dogs in California; of the Van Dam parents pleading hopelessly for the return of their daughter, Danielle; many pictures of the widows and orphans of the World Trade Center killings.

  • WOMAN:

    This is my husband. And I'm just so afraid that he's hurt and that he wants me there, and I can't hold his hand.


    That is where the recent slideshow began, along with the slide of emotions, down, down, until we have grown accustomed to grief on public exhibition, and we watch with equal sympathy and puzzlement.

    It is hard to grasp all this sadness. If it is shown in public for public consumption, one should know what to make of it, what to do with it, what it is good for.

    Show a criminal on TV, we think: Lock him up. Show a hero, we think: Praise him. Show a war– as the Vietnam War was shown over and over until its pointless anarchy was exposed– and we understood that we were not in favor of that war.

    But grief is something different. We're like children watching grown-ups in despair. We know that something has gone terribly wrong, but we are helpless, helplessly watching. The difficulty arises from the fact that one cannot know grief for someone else; one can only recognize it.

    There are other things that one cannot know for someone else: The compulsion of addictions, depression, family hatreds and betrayals.


    Tomorrow on "Springer" Ivan is pregnant by Alicia's boyfriend.


    This is why, I think, shows like Jerry Springer and Ricki Lake are so successful: They appear to deal with great personal secrets. But they are not our secrets, and we do not deeply care about someone else's infidelity or sex change operation or the torments that derive from love.

    Because we do not care, all these people are turned into clowns. They may suffer for themselves, but for the viewers they are entertainers.

    When it comes to grief, however, one wants to feel something more than the automatic reflex of a tear. Grief is not freakish or cheap. Grief is serious loss, permanent loss. Television shows us glimpses of those who have lost, but does not show us loss. This is not loss. Ceci n'est pas perdu.

    This is the picture of loss broken into images, like chips of glass reflecting off a facet, a slice of grimace, a glint of sigh. Not whole, nothing whole. I see Danielle Van Dam's mother drowned in tears in a courtroom. I cannot know her pain, thank God; I can only know the picture of her pain. Television is selective with its exposures. It wants us to buy things, including the news. We see people suffering, and we buy suffering, the way we would buy a refrigerator or a roll of paper towels, advertised for whatever it purports to be. But we do knot know their grief, only they know that.

    And the distance between us is as heartbreaking as if we did.

    I'm Roger Rosenblatt.

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