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RUSSO: Why we need vigils

Criticism of the events misses their valuable social functions

On Feb. 23, Viewpoint writer Bobby Doyle published a column entitled, “Why vigils work against positive change.” In the column, Doyle argues the “passiveness” of vigils makes them counterproductive when we should be responding to tragedies through organized social action.

On the contrary, I think vigils are inherently valuable and should not be classified as “passive.” When faced with tragedies, the solution is not always to spring directly into action — doing so without taking time to reflect and grieve as a community can lead to misplaced or ineffective reactionary movements.

Vigils are not merely “gestures of solidarity.” Rather, vigils provide a space for individuals who are grieving to find emotional support in their community. When unimaginable tragedies face our community, such as the disappearance and death of Hannah Graham, the only method of support that is available is support through our peers. The importance of grieving properly cannot be overemphasized. The events we faced last semester could not be dealt with on an individual basis. Vigils and moments of communal reflection were absolutely essential for some students, such as myself, to continue on with everyday responsibilities.

Doyle writes that vigils “attempt to patch up the immediate pain instead of looking to address the habitual source of it.” While I understand where he is coming from with this point, I would ask readers to imagine the alternative. After the Chapel Hill shootings, should we have gone to the University of North Carolina to stage protests? It seems the only possible response in the face of that particular tragedy was to acknowledge the pain we felt as a community in solidarity with UNC. Changes evaluating the security and dynamics of our own University require a level-headed and pragmatic approach, which in turn implies separation from moments of emotional distress.

The unfortunate truth of the matter is that once a tragedy has occurred, there is nothing that can be done to go back in time and prevent said tragedy from happening. Thus, Doyle’s statement that “the honoring nature of vigils. . . sets the tone for how students view the tragedy” is misguided. If anything, vigils place tragedies which may have great personal meaning for students in the context of the larger community’s values. The vigil for Hannah Graham said, “We value and miss this member of our community.” The vigil for the UNC victims said, “We do not tolerate violence within our own community, and stand in solidarity with those faced with inexplicable violence in their own communities.” These messages should not be disregarded as passive. They remind us in times of confusion and distress of the glue that binds our community together. It is true that vigils do not frame tragedies as problems that need to be solved, but this is because they often are not problems to be solved.

While I maintain my belief that vigils which solely serve as places of collective grieving are valuable, it is important to acknowledge that vigils can take many different forms. For example, last semester during the Hannah Graham vigil, Student Council President Jalen Ross, a fourth-year Engineering student, used the vigil as an opportunity to ask the students and community members present to participate in a search for Hannah that weekend. At a time when students felt lost and powerless, participating in the vigil as well as the search that weekend allowed us to direct our energy in a way that might have been helpful. This was a time when a vigil served as a platform to initiate action.

Doyle is right in saying that tragedies should sometimes spur us to action. However, it is vital that there be a moment of pause before action is taken. Think about the people who vandalized Phi Kappa Psi’s fraternity house last semester. Clearly, they acted on feelings of emotional distress without pausing to consider the lives that were affected on both sides of the Rolling Stone article.

Imagining vigils solely as opportunities for social change proves futile. Social action requires examination of issues or concerns from a distance, with a depersonalized approach. The very nature of vigils is that they exist as points in time for reflection and collective emotional response. When we pause and reflect as a community, we may come away with a better understanding of how to improve our community and potentially prevent tragedies. Unfortunately, for the most part the nature of tragedies is that they are unforeseen and unpreventable, which sometimes makes emotional support the only appropriate response. 

Mary Russo is a Senior Associate Editor for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at


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