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Public Images of Private Grief

On Saturday 15,000 Christmas wreaths were placed on the graves at Arlington Cemetery.  The annual event is an occasion for both press coverage and personal visitations, as with this photograph of a woman hugging the gravestone of her husband who recently had been killed in Afghanistan.

Arlington grief December 2009

This photo is one of a series of similar shots that together received wide circulation, including the front page of the Sunday New York Times.  Some are close cropped while others show more of the surrounding phalanx of gravestones, but all feature the woman holding on to the lifeless stone.

He was 41 when it happened, a Lt. Colonel on his second deployment to the region (the first had been in Iraq).  He had been training Afghan soldiers until his vehicle hit an IED.  You can read more about him here, but that is not really what the photograph is about.  It’s about her, and her devastating loss, and about having to live with that pain and emptiness.

She wraps her body around the stone, trying to get as close as she can to his memory, his still lingering presence, to what they once had together.  Head bowed in grief, she knows all too well the futility of living flesh finding warmth in the inanimate object, but she holds on anyway.  Who would want to let go?

Her body humanizes the stone, reminding us that there once was a person in place of the block letters of a name, just as her personal act of devotion redeems the rest of the scene, where long rows of bare markers stretch into bone-white desolation.  The stones are but symbols, we realize, of those who were loved and lost, and of how much grief must be locked up in those still living.

Some people believe that such images shouldn’t be shown, but they are.  They carry no direct bias as they can serve arguments both for and against war, and all might agree that they shouldn’t be “politicized,” but it is hard to pretend that Arlington should lie outside of public concern.  Public grieving is an important part of democratic life, and images of individual loss are one of the means by which grief is made intelligible in a liberal society.  Seeing how grief isolates people, leaving them so radically alone, might be an important reminder of how the community needs to help those in need, and to sustain its own bonds of collective support.

That said, photographs marking a relationship between private loss and public life also can prompt questions about the relationship between past, present, and national priorities.  Have we seen this before?  Is the unique moment of individual loss part of a larger pattern?  In spite of sincere ritual observances (such as the laying of the wreaths), are we becoming too accustomed to war and the costs of war?  How well are we caring for the widow and the orphan, and for all citizens?  How much will history have to repeat itself before we notice that, whether in war or peace, the pictures are all the same?

Suau Memorial Day

Photographs by Win McNamee/Getty Images and Anthony Suau/Denver Post.  The second photograph was taken on Memorial Day, 1983 and received the Pulitzer Prize in 1984.


Public Images of Private Grief


7 Responses

  1. Marie says

    These photos touched me. When I see the National Cemetery I think of the soldiers and their lost life for their country and it prompts a sense of respect. These photos of the women hugging the gravestones help to bring the grief to reality.

  2. Diogenes says

    Thank you. The poignancy brings tears to my eyes. (I’m compiling photos to teach psychiatry residents about grief by evoking it in my seminar tomorrow). And thank you for the commentary and the social questions we all too often don’t seem willing or able to ask.

  3. Marianty says

    I lost my honey to the war, and seeing these pictures brought so many tears to my eyes. They are tears of sadness but also of comfort to see that the world can see the pain some of us have to endure. War losses are quickly turned into statistics ” 2,000 soldiers killed” “40,000 soldiers wounded” but in every number of those statistics there is a person who meant the world to someone else, and the pain is so deep that it must not be overlooked for political debate.
    As a war widow I can say that I cannot give two damns about ending the war or not, the political debate on war is a double edged sword to my heart. However, I do care for my loss to be recognized and for my honey’s life to be remembered.

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