Taking Grief Private at Virginia Tech

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Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Mourners visit the makeshift memorial in front of Virginia Tech's Burris Hall, April 21, 2007.

The first sharp clang shattered the crystalline morning and dwindled to nothing, then was followed by another, somehow more startling than the first. A frightened baby began to wail — the only voice heard in a field of many thousands.

A white balloon rose on a soft west wind, rocking gently as its string fluttered. The higher it went, the paler it became. After 15 seconds, the pale blue sky showed through its center, and the bell clanged again and another balloon began rising and growing pale.

Beautiful and achingly sad, the tolling bell and the disappearing balloons and the mass silence marked one week since the murder of 32 students and teachers at Virginia Tech. For eight long minutes the ceremony continued, each balloon finally evaporating in the bleached margin between sun and sky. Finally, flights of orange and crimson balloons swirled up and away and dwindled to pinpoints.

And the students in shorts and jeans and t-shirts turned quietly and with purpose and set off for Monday morning classes as the university tried to go on living.

Nothing was said because words fail, and because the mood of this campus has turned decidedly inward. The administration has posted prominent signs on all academic and residential buildings barring reporters and camera crews. Over the weekend, the student government issued a polite but firm request that the media pack up and leave.

A parking lot jammed with hundreds of television satellite trucks last week was down to its last two dozen this morning. The press center — standing-room-only a few days ago — had plenty of open seats.

"A lot of the press did get the message that they needed to back off," said R. Baldwin Lloyd, a local clergyman long associated with the Virginia Tech community. "But some were overbearing and too anxious to get the story, and not sensitive to what was happening to people." Lloyd said even prayer groups had been interrupted by television cameras during the saturation coverage of last week.

The shock of the carnage, followed by the surge of attention from every part of the world, severely taxed the students and staff of the university. They managed, however, to answer questions with composure and in dozens of languages. University public relations people found Indian students to speak to Indian media, Korean students to speak to Korean media, German-speaking students to speak to German media — and so on around the globe.

But as the shock wore off, and the adrenaline drained away, the strain of being patient and resourceful and strong has begun to wear on people. "All the public mourning seemed to delay the private mourning," said Robert Trent, a professor at nearby Radford College, who sang with his Virginia Tech friends in the church choir Sunday. "People put on a brave face, and it's reasonable that they would react that way. But now it hits them, and they should be allowed to have these private moments."