Cindy Sheehan and grief

By Michael Humphrey

Did Cindy Sheehan make a difference for the peace movement in the United States? Did she change minds, help Americans get clarity amidst a labyrinth of rationales for invading Iraq? Possibly. Does it hurt the peace movement for her to pull up her tent, criticize other activists and imply that her efforts were all for naught? Possibly.

I’ll be honest. Sheehan never struck me as a positive voice for the anti-war movement, nor its “face” as the media has asserted. Like the flag-draped coffins that we aren’t allowed to see coming home, she is more symbolic that seminal. She is the face of grief, not peace, the rage of needless loss.

I am unfortunately qualified to spot this. And any time Sheehan made the news, sometimes for her vitriolic language, I winced. My mother would understand her even better, because she needlessly lost a son too. The death of my brother 18 months ago didn’t come in the heat of battle, nor did it make the news. He took his own life, a victim of himself, of his debt, of a society that still tells men to “suck it up and work.” My mom has been through the same emotional turmoil Sheehan has, although far more privately. No one can ever imagine this unless they’ve been through it. Losing a child is abject cruelty.

Every time Sheehan spoke, I thought of my mother and of the media. The heart of what she said about President Bush and his administration, the logic she used, may have been no different from that of other war protesters. But the media were drawn to her because of that loss in her voice, that impenetrable anger. It was, sadly, spectacle. And it was waning.

I have also experienced this as a reporter. When I was 23 years old, I was assigned to find the parents of a 17-year-old girl who died of alcohol poisoning the previous night. I found the house, but I couldn’t knock. I knew I would only exploit their raw emotions. That was the beginning of my demise as a hard-news reporter.

I did interview them a few days later, at their request, and several times after that. They became crusaders against teenage drinking, and vigorously lobbied to prosecute the adult male who gave their child the alcohol. In their rage and crusade, they emotionally imploded. When the man plea-bargained out of jail time, they scattered their shot wherever they could.

When my editor told me the story was done, to move on, they were devastated and angry at me. I was a diversion, a way to fill in space where emptiness waited. I felt tremendous guilt, but now through my mother’s eyes I see that everyone must face that hollowness.

“I am going to take whatever I have left and go home,” Sheehan wrote May 28. “I am going to go home and be a mother to my surviving children and try to regain some of what I have lost. … I am getting out before it totally consumes me or anymore people that I love and the rest of my resources.”

I was happy to read those words. The peace movement doesn’t need a face, it needs a message. And it has one and it will continue to speak it. Sheehan needs healing, a spirit of forgiveness and peace for herself.

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