Unbearable: Huggable new lows in America's grief craze

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"Volunteers from the Pet Assisted Therapy Association moved through the crowds with their dogs. Children ran up to a white Samoyed named Magine and a golden retriever named Dante to hug and play with them. Magine rolled over on his back and wiggled under the attention. Some people snuggled under donated quilts… Two men embraced in a bear hug… Among the objects left as memorials were a miniature New England Patriots football, rainbow balloons and a teddy bear wearing a Great White cap."

–From a Feb. 24 Providence Journal report on the Great White fire memorial ceremony

It can be exhausting at times, following these endless, media-fueled orgies of adult grief that surround whichever gruesome random catastrophe is currently dominating the headlines–the space shuttle, the Chicago stampede, the transplant girl, now the Great White fire. If you’re like me, you read passages like the one above and find yourself asking all kinds of disturbing questions.

I can understand friends and family grieving for the fire victims, but how can there possibly be an organization called the Pet Assisted Therapy Association that has any kind of permanent existence? And while I suppose I can understand mourners snuggling under quilts in the presumably heated lobby of a hotel (the Great White ceremony took place in the Warwick Crowne Plaza), one has to wonder if the quilts were donated specifically for that purpose–and if so, why? Is there actually a person or an organization that collects quilts ahead of time, so that they can subsequently be snuggled under in hotel lobbies by the relatives of accident victims?

For about a decade now, and especially since Sept. 11, Americans have been grotesquely, luridly self-pitying, ready at the drop of a hat to celebrate–with the aid of a vast array of bureaucratic accessories–their collective grief over any kind of loss, real or imaginary.

But in the last month or so, this phenomenon has developed into a full-fledged psychosis. Within minutes of the Columbia explosion, residents of Texas and Louisiana were racing out of their homes and vomiting yellow ribbons and teddy bears in the direction of anything that had the misfortune to fall out of the sky. Cameras captured the amazing spectacle of swarms of couples standing with their arms around each other and weeping, literally weeping in the direction of small pieces of sizzling metal.

Within a day, virtually every newspaper in the country ran a version of the same story: "[Insert podunk town name here] Copes With Its Grief." In my hometown of Buffalo, NY, the local daily Buffalo News wondered aloud how the region’s parents would decide to tell their kids–who "may or may not" be old enough to remember the Challenger tragedy–about the shuttle crash.

A "child" old enough to remember the Challenger crash, it should be pointed out, would be at least 21 or 22 years old now. It is hard not to laugh at the image of a mother wringing her hands in the doorway as she struggles to think of a way to tell her stoned, unemployed, freeloading 22-year-old son about the Columbia crash–but these are the kinds of absurdities that are shoved down our throats on an almost daily basis.

None of this resembles the behavior of people with either real problems or real interests in life. It may be that life in America has become so grim and constricting and sexually repressed that mawkish public displays of canned grief are the only socially acceptable avenues people have left for acting out–so that when the opportunity arises for people to weep on camera or erect garish public shrines of rainbow balloons and plush animals, they jump on it, like a newly-released convict on an unlucky call girl.

A real victim in all of this has been the teddy bear, which has been forced into the role of the national symbol of this madness.

Teddy bears didn’t deserve this. For almost 100 years they were excellent, perfectly blameless toys for children. Then, somewhere along the line, therapists discovered that teddy bears were a great comfort to children during disasters and accidents. Gradually, over the course of the last twenty years or so, rescue workers began bringing teddy bears to fires, earthquake sites, even to car accidents.

There are many police departments around the country, in fact, that now issue teddy bears along with shotguns and road flares as part of the standard equipment for highway police cruisers.

Makes sense so far. But sometime in the last ten years, an amazing thing happened: Teddy bears began appearing in crisis situations that did not involve children at all.

At first it was just a case of a suspiciously high number of teddy bears showing up at places where there were too few child victims, or places where the child victims were too old to need teddy bears–the Oklahoma City bomb site, for instance, or Columbine High (what Grand Theft Auto-playing high school student needs a teddy bear?). But then that gave way to situations like the ones in the past weeks, which were completely unambiguous:

Space Shuttle Columbia–Adult astronauts, adult mourners; bears everywhere.

Chicago nightclub trampling–Disco-dancing adult victims and mourners; bears, bears, bears.

Warwick, RI–Shitty, over-the-hill schlock heavy-metal band blows up 97 of its sad,
middle-aged fans; exclusively adult mourners, but bears in every direction.

Rich Boland is the head of the Pittsburgh-based Critical Incident Stress Management team that coordinated stress relief efforts at the United flight 93 crash site on Sept. 11. Part of his job involved distributing free teddy bears to FBI agents and state troopers. I asked him if he’d noticed when Americans started using bears in situations that didn’t involve children.

"Yeah, I noticed that," he said. "I think it started at Oklahoma City. Then again, there are bears all over the place at the flight 93 crash memorial, and there were no child victims there, either."

Isn’t that…weird?

"Well," he said. "I guess in mourning situations, people feel a need to leave something of themselves at the site." He paused. "Actually, yeah, I don’t know why that happens."

Neither does Nicole Huillier, spokeswoman for Vermont Teddy Bears, America’s leading teddy bear manufacturer. In what was universally regarded as a disastrous year for toy sales, Vermont Teddy Bear last year experienced an 11 percent increase in sales over the previous year. I asked her if she knew when adults started building teddy bear grief shrines, and if she knew why it happened.

"I think it’s that teddy bears are so comforting for children," she said. "They’re a friend who isn’t going to be judgmental."

Right. But we’re talking about adults. There were no little kids at that Great White show, but bears all over the place. Bears in Great White caps.

You could almost hear her shrugging over the phone. "Well, maybe it reminds adults of when they were children."

Maybe. Or maybe teddy bears just have the bad fortune to perfectly represent America’s current desired emotional self-image: harmless, pitiable, vegetatively loyal, family-oriented, built to grieve. They also perfectly represent mainstream America’s idea of political morality: Teddy bears don’t do anything wrong, but they don’t really do anything, either.

It goes without saying that this is an extremely demented way for an adventurous military superpower to think of itself. A teddy bear has the perfect personality–for a teddy bear. But the grownup teddy bear who wanders through life, arms extended in hug-ready position, in search of the next car wreck to cry over–man, that’s not the animal I want running things. But that’s exactly where we are.

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