Sunday, April 18, 2010

The State Funeral Without the State

Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria were buried today in Krakow, just over a week after the plane on which they were traveling went down in the fog in Russia.  Usually, when a head of state dies, other world leaders, or at least their designees, attend the funeral.  Not this time.  Many leaders were unable to attend due to the difficulties with air travel in Europe caused by the recent eruption of Eyjafjallajokull, a volcano in Iceland which has sent ash into the skies over the continent and halted air travel in countries to the north.  Leaders of the United States, France and Germany were among those who canceled their plans to fly to Poland to pay tribute to the Kaczynskis.

One of the feelings that people often report following a traumatic incident is a sense of disbelief that the world is continuing about its business when something so awful has happened.  When you are feeling completely stopped in your tracks, it's easy to expect, on some level, that everyone else will be, too.  This feeling is only stronger when an event has affected a lot of people, or even a whole country, as it has in this case.  I remember distinctly the feeling that, after 9-11, it was fitting that there be no air travel.  It wasn't just about security, it was that no one should move when the world had gone so crazy.

In that sense, you might think that the Icelandic volcano and its attendant flight disruptions would feel "right" to the people of Poland.  After their "stop the world" moment -- the death of so many government officials on one plane -- the world had to come, at least somewhat, to a stop.  Something apocalyptic in their lives was paired with something apocalyptic in nature.  It seems fitting.

The problem is that when something big happens and we feel like the world should stop, we most commonly feel like the world should stop and pay attention to what has happened.  This is what happened after 9-11, when in fact people weren't flying because of what had happened, and when the whole world did seem focuses, if only for a brief time, on what was happening to us in the United States.  The week of the attacks, at the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace in London, the band played "The Star Spangled Banner."  It seemed to align.  But that is not what happened this week.  The natural world did something big, yes, but that something not only had nothing to do with Poland's tragedy, it actually prevented the rest of the world from focusing fully on Poland's mourning.

The fact of the matter is that the world does not stop turning when there is a critical incident.  As much as it may pain us, most people keep on living their lives even when we feel like we can't.  Friends may help and support us, but they cannot feel what we are feeling.  And nature may seem to echo our anguish, but, in the end, a volcano can't empathize with us, either.

Note:  In my lifetime, I think the most salient example of nature mirroring current events happened in October, 2004.  For the first time in 86 years, the Boston Red Sox won the World Series, and there was a lunar eclipse the same night.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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