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9:46 am
Tue April 15, 2014

A Year After Boston Marathon Bombing, How Does Public Grief Help?

Originally published on Tue April 15, 2014 6:23 pm

It's been a year since a bombing near the finish line of the Boston Marathon killed three people and injured hundreds of others.

The tragedy brought a massive outpouring of grief and concern from all over the world, as people sent flowers, running shoes, messages, quilts and all kinds of tributes to Boston.

The bombing even affected people who did not not have a direct connection with the city. Across the pond in England, Danny Bent says he "knew one person in the whole of the United States," but he tells NPR's Celeste Headlee that he was moved to act.

"We all felt this pain that everyone here in Boston was feeling and everyone wanted to do something," he says. "We didn't just want to open up our wallets and hand over some notes. We wanted to stand up and show our strength and solidarity for the people of Boston." So with two friends, he organized One Run for Boston, a nonstop running relay from Los Angeles to Boston that saw 2,000 runners take part this year.

In the small town of Hollis, N.H., Mary Thomas has knitted 20 blue and yellow scarves for the Boston Marathon Scarf Project. She sees them as "a symbol of comfort and strength." The project, set up by the Old South Church in Boston, has collected more than 6,500 scarves from across the world to give to runners and survivors. "As Senior Minister Nancy Taylor has said, it's as if we're knitting the world together with love and courage," Thomas points out.

But why did people like Thomas and Bent act after Boston? Rich Harwood is the founder and president of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation. He worked closely in helping Newtown, Conn., come together and move forward after the shooting in Sandy Hook. He says that "the bombing was an affront to our sense of community, our sense of fairness, and I think what we see is a sense of people wanting to belong, to be part of something larger than themselves."


Interview Highlights

On what Mary Thomas got out of knitting scarves for Boston's runners

The shock of living in a small community like Hollis, and having such a tragedy where so many were injured, where all those runners are there for a peaceful expression of athleticism ... when a tragedy like this happens, the community comes together and really strengthens, and I think that the scarves are a tangible way of us giving something to show support and courage and really hope for these runners, that they stay strong and run well.

Danny Bent on how public expressions of grief help

I think that if you can express it publicly, it makes people feel as though they are not alone. I mean, we were sitting there in the U.K. and we were feeling this pain and you're not really sure who to talk to. When you do it publicly, it brings forth people who are feeling that similar emotion and connections are made, and I think that can help a lot.

On why Rich Harwood believes the response to the Boston Marathon bombing has brought people together

There's something about us reconstituting our community, our sense of community. I think you have to remember that underlying all this, at least in the United States, is a deep yearning among Americans to come back into community life, to find a way to reconnect and re-engage with one another. ... And I think the response to the Boston bombing is one signal or one sign of that deep yearning and of people trying to make it real in their individual lives, but I think as importantly, in our collective lives.

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Transcript

CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. It's been a year since a bombing near the finish line of the Boston Marathon killed three people and injured hundreds of others. The tragedy brought a massive outpouring of grief and concern from all over the world. People sent flowers, running shoes, messages, quilts and all kinds of things to Boston. We wanted to look at how these public expressions have helped individuals and their communities outside of Massachusetts to cope with the tragedy.

And here to talk about that is Rich Harwood. He's the founder and president of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation. That's a nonprofit group that facilitates community discussions. And he's worked closely in helping Newtown, Connecticut come together and move forward after the shooting in Sandy Hook.

Also joining us, Danny Bent. He's a Brit who set up One Run for Boston. That's a nonstop running relay from LA to Boston that ended in Boston on Sunday. More than 2,000 runners took part.

And finally, Mary Thomas is with us as well. She's a knitter from Hollis, New Hampshire who's knitted 20 scarves for the Boston Marathon Scarf Project. That was set up by the Old South Church, which is known to runners as the church of the finish line in Boston. And that group has collected, I guess, nearly 7,000 scarves from across the world to give to Boston Marathon runners and survivors. Welcome to all of you.

RICH HARWOOD: Good to be with you.

HEADLEE: So, Mary, were you present for the bombing? Did you have family members present?

MARY THOMAS: I was actually at Fenway Park for the Red Sox game and was at lunch one mile from the finish line when it happened.

HEADLEE: But other than that, that's your only connection is physical proximity, right?

THOMAS: Physical proximity. And in a small town, you learn that you know someone who knows someone who was involved.

HEADLEE: What was it about the process of making a scarf that did something for you? And what did it do for you?

THOMAS: I've been involved with other projects such as prayer shawls. And the thought of these scarves as a symbol of comfort and strength means the same thing to me as prayer shawls have been for sick in our parish. And so it's that similar message of strength and love.

HEADLEE: And then let me go to you, Danny Bent. Many of the runners that participated in your relay didn't have a personal connection with the Boston bombing, correct?

DANIEL BENT: Yeah, that's absolutely correct. I mean, we had them from all over the country. Some of them didn't know anyone who'd taken part in it. And obviously, there's us guys, the organizers, we were in the U.K., and we didn't know - I knew one person in the whole United States.

HEADLEE: So all the way across the pond, as we say, you felt like you had to do something. I mean, I have to assume it's grief, right?

BENT: I guess it is grief. And, I mean, part of it is anger. And you have some forms of guilt, I think, as well as a runner that those people were there and you weren't. You know, it seems strange to say it - the guilt that you weren't there at the time.

HEADLEE: And so setting up an event that's largely symbolic accomplishes what for you? What kind of comfort does that bring you?

BENT: Well, I just think - I mean, for myself and for all the runners that took part, we all felt this kind of pain that everyone here in Boston was feeling. And everyone wanted to do something.

We didn't want to just kind of open up our wallets and just hand over some notes. We wanted to kind of stand up and kind of show our strength and solidarity for the people of Boston, and especially for those people who had been affected.

HEADLEE: Rich, what we're hearing are stories from people who have done something that almost has more symbolic power than tangible power, right?

HARWOOD: Well, I think, you know, in so much of our lives these days, we are divided against one another, pitted against one another. And I think the bombing was an affront to our sense of community, our sense of fairness.

And I think what we see is a sense of people wanting to belong, to be part of something larger than themselves to express, as Mary said, both a sense of comfort and also, I think equally important, a sense of strength, a sense of resilience that while this has set us back, it won't do us in.

HEADLEE: How real is this emotional grief and trauma that somebody might experience from perhaps thousands of miles away?

HARWOOD: I think it's real. I think, you know, in my involvement in Newtown, people would come up to me in airports, at meetings and other places and grab my hand and want to hold my hand and talk about what happened in the community, about how people were making their way forward, about how people were dealing with the challenges in their daily lives.

I think it's, again, a sense of a shared experience that in so many ways we don't have in our society now that I think peaks people's interest and calls them forward and makes them want to both be with other people in a way and help folks move forward. And in doing that, I think we're helping ourselves move forward in an important way.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, we're talking about public expressions of grief and support after an event like the Boston Marathon bombing and how it can help people around the world deal with a tragic event like that.

Mary Thomas, you've said that there have been scarves sent to the Boston Scarf Project from as far away as Russia, India, Australia. Many of these people have never been to Boston, maybe will never be to Boston. What do you think they get out of both making these scarves and then sending them?

THOMAS: I think they get that sense of connection. And as the senior minister of Old South Church, Nancy Taylor, has said, it's as if we're knitting the world back together with love and courage.

HEADLEE: And Danny Bent, again, let me go back to some of your participants. What do you hear from them? When they finish their role in the relay, what's their response, the feeling that they get?

BENT: It's funny what Mary said about knitting. We've knitted this community that have - you know, we're passing on a baton from one person to the other. And it feels like we've put our arms around the United States.

And the runners are kind of saying that, you know, they have taken this positivity from it, really, is the big factor and the comradery and the kind of family that's come from this. We call it a family, basically. This was the biggest surprise when we did this, is that everyone has stood by each other not just during this crisis with the Boston Marathon and getting over the Boston Marathon, but there's this community that's supporting each other through daily life as well.

HEADLEE: How is that different than, say, responding to somebody over social media, tweeting back to someone, having a conversation over Facebook about this?

BENT: That's hard to answer. I think the fact that there is this physicality, and people have been watching the batons go to a track runner. They've been watching it cross across the country. It's actually physical.

And at every interchange, they're putting their arms around each other. And they're holding each other close and saying, thank you. Thank you for bringing the baton to me. And then at exactly the same point 10 miles on, they get the same response from the next runner.

HEADLEE: Rich, so you deal with people who are dealing with grief most of the time, I assume, on a personal level, where they are - a family member has been injured or dealt with it, or they themselves have somehow been affected, right?

HARWOOD: Right, and I think what we're hearing from Danny and Mary is that there is the personal grieving that takes place, the individual grieving. But there is also a collective grieving. There's something about us reconstituting our community, our sense of community.

I think you have to remember that underlying all this, at least in the United States, is a deep yearning among Americans to come back into community life, to find a way to reconnect and reengage with one another and to do it around something that we share in common, something that is collective, something that grows out of something that we aspire to achieve together. And I think the response to the Boston bombing is one signaler, one sign of that deep yearning and then people trying to make it real, and they're individualized, but I think as importantly in our collective lives.

HEADLEE: So, Mary, you say that you have done this kind of thing for other tragic events as well?

THOMAS: Just our group does chemo camps for cancer survivors and prayer shawls for those who are sick or have had losses.

HEADLEE: Help me understand, Mary, the evolution for you of grief and I guess shock and surprise that you must have felt on the day of the Boston bombings and where you are a year later and how that was affected - or what role did the knitting project have to play in guiding this evolution?

THOMAS: The shock of living in a small community like Hollis and having such a tragedy where so many were injured, where all those runners are there for a peaceful expression of athleticism. And, you know, we're sheltered in a small town but not unaffected.

When a tragedy like this happens, the community comes together and really strengthens. And I think that the scarves are a tangible way of us giving something to show support and courage and really hope for these runners that they stay strong and run well.

HEADLEE: So, Rich, does it matter what a community chooses to do or what an individual chooses to do, I mean, if you're feeling grief about something that's happened? You know, I felt a lot of grief over what happened in Haiti or, say, the typhoon. Whatever I choose to do to deal with that grief or express grief publicly, does it matter what it is?

HARWOOD: Well, I think in a community, there are all signs of public expressions of grief. I think it probably matters less that they're, you know, uniform in their expressions as much as the sentiments are felt and the sense of - you're not alone, that there are other people there, that you have a sense of support, that we understand that this is a long-term healing process, that this isn't just simply a flash in the pan. I think those sentiments become very important in terms of a community being able to pull together and move forward.

HEADLEE: And, Danny, what is the benefit of the public portion of that grief, that public expression? What difference does it make when you express that grief in a physical, tangible way that other people can see and expressing it at home among your family and your friends?

BENT: I think if you can express it publicly, I mean, it makes people feel as though they're not alone. I mean, we were sitting there in the U.K., and we're feeling this pain. And you're not really sure who to talk to or - when you do it publicly, it brings forth, you know, people who are feeling that similar emotion and connections are made. and I think that can help quite a lot.

HEADLEE: Danny Bent is an organizer of One Run for Boston. That's a relay run from LA to Boston. He's also author of the book "Not All Superheroes Wear Capes," which is about the race. Also Rich Harwood, founder and president of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation. That's a nonprofit group that facilitates community discussion, also author of a number of books including "The Work of Hope: How Individuals & Organizations Can Authentically Do Good." And Mary Thomas, a knitter from Hollis, New Hampshire who became involved with the Boston Marathon Scarf Project with Old South Church. Thanks to all three of you.

HARWOOD: Good to be with you.

BENT: Thanks, Celeste.

THOMAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.