Matt Rourke/AP

Boston strong: Communal healing after tragedy

How do towns and cities memorialize a terrible event without being imprisoned by it?

Heavy with memories, surrounded by supporters and guarded by a police presence unprecedented in its size, participants of the Boston Marathon were at the center of a monumental communal moment on Monday. 

It has been a year since a pair of homemade pressure cooker bombs exploded near the race's finish line, shooting nails and shrapnel from backpacks, killing three and wounding more than 260 others.

No one ever questioned if the marathon would go on, but with an estimated 36,000 runners, this year’s race was one of the largest yet. Millions came out to show their support for survivors and the city, painting the streets with the words “Boston strong.”

This year’s race embodied what communities across the country have gone through before: intense unity and inspiring recovery in times of unbelievable tragedy. 

Mourners laid tokens of support at makeshift memorials in Boston before the 2014 marathon.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

When communities process grief, they often work to redefine the calamity by using it as a force for change. Results can vary for each place, depending on local decisions made.

Out of the smoke and sadness of the 1995 Oklahoma City truck bombing, the city erected a mammoth national memorial and museum. Every year the community organizes events in remembrance.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, New York built a large and respectful memorial and museum, but it has taken years and millions of dollars. Not everyone is satisfied, and the museum is finally due to open on May 21.

Virginia Tech has reopened the building where the 2007 shootings took place and introduced a center for peace studies and violence prevention.

In Newtown, Conn., the community razed Sandy Hook Elementary School and plans to build a redesigned school at a different site. Some parents began advocating for more gun control legislation, alongside other towns affected by violence.

But it seems the size of places ultimately affect how they move forward after heartbreak. Big cities like Boston and New York typically do not become known for a single event that happened there. However, smaller communities like Blacksburg, Va., and Aurora, Colo., face more difficult challenges in the aftermath of an awful event. They have to quickly adjust to national attention and strike an uncomfortable balance between remembering the past and planning for the future.

How can all of these communities ever really heal? Lines etched above the Oklahoma City bombing memorial offer this: “May all who leave here know the impact of violence. May this memorial offer comfort, strength, peace, hope and serenity.”

The Oklahoma City bombing memorial was built where the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building once stood.
J. Pat Carter/AP

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