All possible sadness was sucked out of me because of sixteen-year-old Joanne’s suicide. She seemed to have everything, including a high achieving, yet supportive family, who valued education and encouraged creativity. She was my daughter, Susan’s friend and they both played in the school orchestra. It seemed unfathomable that Joanne would intentionally hook-up the family car’s exhaust to end her life. Her mother and father, the rabbi, her teachers, her friends — no one could comprehend why she killed herself. The rabbi spoke with wrenching anguish, wishing someone had known what demons she was experiencing, so that she could have been helped.
January 28, 1986 was the day the space shuttle Challenger blew up. Television and newspapers showed people crying across America, for the crew, but especially for the young New Hampshire teacher who was aboard. Christa McAuliffe had touched the hearts of so many Americans, as if we knew her personally. There was also grief for what many Americans felt was our loss of excellence in a new, technologically experimental field. Many thought we failed as a nation, when the United States Space Shuttle exploded.
When I heard about the Challenger disaster, I was at work. I felt resentful that this tragedy attempted to vie with my own personal pain. How could anything compete with the suicide of a sixteen year old girl, just nine days earlier? My sorrow was all used up and I didn’t have any feelings left over for the Challenger’s explosion.
A similar situation occurred with the arrival of Hurricane Katrina, at the end of August 2005. This was the costliest natural disaster in the United States, resulting in enormous damage to Louisiana, as well as tragedy in many other locations. The tenth anniversary of this hurricane is being marked now. Loss of life and property and the destruction of whole cities remain a horror and disgrace for those incompetent officials in charge. The slow pace of rebuilding in some localities is still shocking.
I sympathized with those experiencing this horror and followed the story, but my mind and body, less than a month earlier had been slammed in an entirely different way. Battered emotionally, and in shock with the entry of federal officers into my home and the arrest of my husband, I was unable to fully commiserate with those living in the wake of Katrina.
There was no way anyone could anticipate that the hurricane’s devastation could last for ten years. I couldn’t foresee that my emotional trauma would last almost as long.
My personal experiences of upset and catastrophe have pushed aside some of the empathy I might have felt about other disasters and deaths. I feel conflicted, in this way, when personal and public tragedies collide. I can’t begin to explain this phenomenon, but know it’s profound and real for me.