An artist paints Notre-Dame Cathedral following its major fire on Monday on April 17, 2019 in Paris, France. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

How to Mourn a Building

GARAGE spoke to a grief counselor about the Notre Dame fire and what the loss of an iconic structure can tell us about ourselves.

by Emma Specter
Apr 17 2019, 6:30pm

An artist paints Notre-Dame Cathedral following its major fire on Monday on April 17, 2019 in Paris, France. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

There's a phenomenon called "Paris syndrome," observed among tourists who, upon vacationing in Paris, develop reactions of extreme shock—including hallucinations, dizziness, and tachycardia— when the City of Lights fails to meet their expectations.

I thought about Paris syndrome, and the myriad things we project onto cities, this Monday as I, like so many others, watched the Notre Dame cathedral burn in real time. As I tracked my friends and acquaintances' responses to the fire on Twitter and Instagram, I was struck by the consistent, almost formulaic manner in which people processed their grief; it felt like everyone I knew posted pictures of themselves smiling beatifically in front of the now-burned edifice, along with a caption about their wonderful study-abroad memories of Paris.

"My heart is broken" was a popular phrase on Instagram; "We are all Paris" was another, an echo of the outpouring of national support after the 2015 Bataclan bombings. Soon after the fire, France's three wealthiest families spearheaded a fundraising drive to rebuild the cathedral that has already raised over $700 million; anyone who dared express reservation about this allocation of resources to architecture over human lives, or mention that non-Western sacred ground is consistently destroyed with little to no public outcry, was promptly hushed by a scandalized Internet.

Before the blaze was even extinguished, it became clear that there was a "right way" to grieve Notre Dame on social media, and a "wrong way" ; the former involved centering yourself and your own experience with the cathedral, and the latter involved trying to link the cathedral's destruction (and prompt relief effort) to any sort of larger societal force at work. But is eulogizing a stucture through the inherently limited prism of one's own experience really the way to do its memory justice? Is the loss of a building political, personal, both, or not quite either?

California-based grief counselor Wendy McClave refers to Notre Dame as a "'heart home' for many people, representing not just a faith but a symbol of Paris," telling GARAGE that many of her clients described their gut reaction while watching the conflagration as similar to the one they experienced while watching the Twin Towers fall on 9/11. There's an obvious difference here—no people were hurt in the Notre Dame fire—and yet, McClave explains that the feelings of loss that Notre Dame's mourners experienced, and attested to on social media, shared certain commonalities with the experiences of people grieving the loss of friends or family.

"Grief is not a step-by-step process as many folks would have us believe, whether it's grief for a symbol or for a person; either way, there is a strong initial sense of shock," explained McClave. "This was a traumatic loss in part because it wasn’t like they were planning to take down Notre Dame; there was no anticipatory grieving, and an unexpected loss affects the brain differently."

A recent panel held at San Francisco's SPUR Urban Center delved into the question of our responsibility to structures, weeks before the Notre Dame fire. "Cultures around the world mourn and commemorate the deaths of their loved ones — friends, families, pets — but buildings rarely receive the same emotional attention. Unless a structure plays a beloved role in society or is deemed to have intrinsic historic value, it is often razed in the name of new development without the shedding of a single tear," pointed out the event page, and while it's true that smaller-scale acts of destruction happen every day in urban life, the loss of a symbol as iconic as Notre Dame forces us to pay attention, eyes glued to the screen as tragedy unfolds.

For some Notre Dame mourners, the loss of the Parisian symbol might hurt so much because it re-triggers the pain of previous losses—of loved ones associated with the city, but also of previous, romanticized parts of one's life. Paris has always loomed large in our collective cultural imagination, serving as the hub of the European art and fashion worlds and inspiring a deep, atavistic sense of longing in everyone from An Education's Jenny to Friends's Rachel Greene. When we grieve Notre Dame, are we really grieving a more innocent version of ourselves that believed a spring-break trip to Paris could remake us wholly in its image?

"In so many people’s cultural imaginations, Paris is not supposed to change," writes Natasha Frost in Quartz, but the truth is that cities change as much as the people who live in them and visit them do; Paris, once perceived as the antidote to all things ugly-American, is now struggling with many of the same problems at work in the U.S. today, from obesity and size bias to to upticks in racism and anti-Semitism. Despite what mass media might have us believe, there's no such thing as a perfect city, and the fall of Notre Dame represented a loss to anyone who might think otherwise.

Notre Dame