Tragedy and trauma are pretty much a universal. Nearly everyone has something in their life that is painful or difficult to remember or process. It may be a national tragedy, an international event, or a very personal moment. Whatever the size and scale, it can often be tempting to try and move forward — to declare “enough is enough” when it comes to remembrances and rehashing and just move on with life. Marking the date of tragedy has been called everything from extraordinarily important to intentional re-injury.
So which is it?
Nancy Burns, writing in The Conversation, explains the research this way:
Such formal days of remembrance are important. As a sociologist who studies grief and justice, I have seen how these events and permanent memorials can be both healing and inspirational. An essential part of healing rests on the ability to tell one’s story – to have someone listen and acknowledge pain and suffering. Scholars have explained how stories help people make sense of their experience. Stories can provide a release of emotion and help one connect to others when learning to live with loss. Conversations about a painful past are not something to be feared but rather remembered and shared. Healing does not come by closing the books and turning away from individual stories of trauma. Healing starts when the devastating consequences of injustice and loss are seen and acknowledged.
One important thing to remember in this remembrance, though, is that your memory of the day or days in question may or may not be entirely accurate. Quoting from a 2015 article in The Pacific Standard:
We tend to think of these kinds of memories—what psychologists sometimes call “flashbulb memories”—as nearly frozen in time. But how accurate are those memories? With that question in mind, a team of psychologists, led by William Hirst at The New School and Elizabeth Phelps at New York University, issued a survey to several thousand people within weeks of the September 11th attacks, asking how they’d found out about the tragedy, and what they knew about the events surrounding the attacks. They followed up in August of 2002, 2004, and, most recently, 2011. Less than a year after the attacks, survey takers’ memories of where they’d been had already changed, a finding the team first reported in 2009. In one example, a student who took the first survey reported having been in the kitchen making breakfast when they heard, but subsequently—and inconsistently with the first survey—said they’d been in a dorm room folding laundry. In the latest study, published this month in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, the researchers reported the same survey taker reported in 2004 and again in 2011 that they’d been ironing laundry when they found out about the attacks.
In other words, even our memories of tragedy may not be factually correct — but that does not make them any less emotionally impactful. So how do you go about marking them?