The struggle to move forward after a senseless tragedy

The slogans say it all but can't encompass the pain of nations.

Lucas Schifres & Andrew Burton/Getty Images

The events in France this week are all too familiar. They have left me, a Bostonian, heartsick, thinking about the people who were killed in the name of a religion that does not support killing the way these terrorists believed.

I wanted to focus on the victims, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how the attack wasn’t over. The gunmen were on the loose, and it seemed nobody knew how many were involved or where they had gone.

This brought me to the week of April 15, 2013. I lived through the marathon bombings in Boston and the subsequent manhunt. I was not physically injured, but my life was forever changed.

There are so many images. Of course, I think of Boston Strong, but I also think of the bloodied sidewalks and the blown-out windows, of the sneakers and marathon memorabilia that piled up in a solemn makeshift memorial at Copley. I think of the man pouring stranded runners glasses of orange juice, the long, long Google document many in Boston filled out offering runners from outside the area a place to sleep, shower and eat until they could get home to their loved ones.

I think of the manhunt, the policeman on my street who spent the early morning yelling at people who took their dogs outside for a bathroom break, telling them to get back inside because a terrorist was on the loose in the area. There’s the tanks and SWAT vans and helicopters and police cars that zipped up and down my street all day, sirens blaring as I peeked out from behind the blinds of my third-story window.

Most of all, I think of the faces of two police officers eating at a restaurant. It was Saturday, the night after the manhunt, and I had met my friends at a place we used to frequent in college after I returned home from covering a Bruins game. Everyone was exhausted, but all of us wanted to be outdoors after being cooped up while our city was held hostage.

On Friday night, we had watched on TV as relieved police officers shook hands and hugged and celebrated the successful capture of the final suspect, alive. That was the biggest part. Maybe, just maybe, capturing him alive would mean he could provide the answer to the question everyone was asking: Why?

Nearly 24 hours to the dot after the manhunt ended, that jubilation was gone.

We were halfway through our meal when these officers walked in and went to the counter to order. The men working the register quietly thanked them for their service to the city. The policemen didn’t say much. They found a table by the door and sat down, stone-faced, exhaustion clear in the lines creased into their foreheads. They didn’t talk, didn’t look at anything or anyone, just kept their heads down, quietly ate their meal and left.

The people who didn’t live in Boston that day didn’t truly grasp the terror. They will never feel the fear that any Boston resident felt that day.

I remember being tempted to pay for their meal, but they looked like they didn’t want to be disturbed. It seemed as if the weight of the world was on their shoulders, and I felt like paying for their meal was a futile drop in an endless bucket toward solving the burden they carried.  

I should have paid for that meal. I think of that, sometimes, when I see a first responder who looks tired or when I return to that restaurant.

What’s most striking about that image of those police offers that night is how the rest of the world never saw it. Everyone saw Boston Strong, everyone saw the city rally around its one true love: Boston’s sports teams. Everyone saw the survivors get fitted for prosthetic limbs, saw them learn to walk again, get married, have children.

The people who didn’t live in Boston that day didn’t truly grasp the terror. They will never feel the fear that any Boston resident felt that day. The experience in the suburbs where people were not under lockdown but were still close to the city can’t compare. There’s nothing quite like knowing that at any second, an armed and highly dangerous man who has supposedly already killed multiple people that week can break down your door.

I wouldn’t wish that feeling on anyone, and I’m absolutely heartbroken that the people of France now know that same feeling, too.

What I wish is the rest of the world could have seen those two police officers the night after the manhunt. They, like many in the Boston area, carry the burden of the surviving bystander.

As bystanders, we weren’t injured. We weren’t displaced and we weren’t firsthand witnesses to the atrocities on the sidewalks of Boylston Street. We should be fine because we have no physical scars to bear, nowhere near the heartache so many others have.

Boston Marathon Tribute

The emotional scars, however, run deep. These are different, accompanied by a bit of survivor’s guilt over not being hurt or killed but still feeling impacted.

Sometimes, they come one night after a massive manhunt ended successfully. Sometimes, like for me, they come a year later, when the bombings have slipped to the side of global conversation and the rest of the world has moved on, but I still can’t.

In the weeks after the bombings, I jumped at the sounds of construction booms. Now, I jump when hearing people mention a marathon, a police chase, a shootout, a lockdown.

Hearing again that two brothers stole a car, led police on a chase through the area, engaged in a shootout and escaped again, well, I wasn’t able to concentrate on anything but my memories of the Boston manhunt all morning. 

I feel alone in this entire post-marathon experience. My family didn’t live through it the same way I did, and I don’t talk about it with my friends. It’s not a cheerful topic and not something anyone wants to discuss when they’re trying to relax. So, most of the time, I feel like I’m the only one still stuck on that week, still struggling to grasp everything that happened.

I know, logically, I’m not the only one. I know for sure that some of my friends are still hurting. Logic and emotions are different worlds, and because you know it’s logical to feel a certain way, it doesn’t mean you don’t feel guilty or stupid for having those feelings.

If I’m going to use logic here, I would bet that many, many people in France will feel the way I feel in the coming weeks, months or years. Sure, people will stand in massive crowds, rallying around a slogan meant to unite and show the world that the terrorists didn’t win.

And the terrorists won’t win, because newspapers will still be published, Charlie Hebdo will be on newsstands once again, people will still go to kosher delis to shop, and the world will refuse to let terrorists prevent them from living their daily lives.

After all, it’s in our nature to fight for life, and it’s not truly living to spend a life hiding from terrorists.

It’s possible to both be okay and be hurt, and it’s possible to be hurt even if you think you’ve moved on.

It’s also in our nature to feel pain, to remember, to dwell on traumatic moments.

So I ask this: that people remember that although there are people across France whose businesses or neighborhoods or family members or friends escaped this attack seemingly unscathed, that these people might still be scarred, and that it’s OK.

It’s OK to struggle with this and feel upset and cry sometimes about it when it seems like everybody else is happily going on living. Because somewhere out there, someone is probably having one of those quiet moments that we don’t see in the press or on TV or even in public, one of those dinners a pair of policemen struggle through, because something horrible happened.

It’s possible to both be OK and be hurt, and it’s possible to be hurt even if you think you’ve moved on.

We will move on. We will be strong, and sometimes, we might feel weak.

My thoughts are with all of the people of France, whether their pain is physical or emotional, and my thoughts will continue to be with them in the coming months and years.

From Boston to France, I offer the words of a wise, forever 8-year-old boy: No more hurting people. Peace. 

Arielle Aronson is a freelance writer based in Boston. You can follow her on Twitter @aharonson28.