Every July, we are subjected to a stream of chaotic video clips, news stories, jokes and mean barbs about the weeklong "running with the bulls" in Pamplona, Spain.
During Wednesday's bull run, Chicago writer Bill Hillmann, 32, co-author of the book "How to Survive the Bulls of Pamplona," gave a thumbs-up from his hospital bed after being gored twice in his right thigh. Other headlines read: "3 hurt, 1 seriously," "One insane street party" and "Animal rights groups call for boycott." Online commenters blast the runners' "stupidity," joke about buttock gorings, and quip about how great it is to see "poor dumb animals get their comeuppance from the bulls."
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Glen Ellyn's Matthew Tassio was a very smart young man with an equally bright future on his final morning of July 13, 1995. A National Merit-commended student, Illinois State Scholar and winner of the Presidential Academic Fitness Award at Benet Academy in Lisle, the 22-year-old made the dean's list at the University of Illinois, where he graduated with a degree in electrical engineering. He already had accepted a job starting that August with Motorola Inc. in Libertyville.
Traveling in Europe with a buddy before embarking on his career, Tassio ended up in Pamplona on that Thursday and made a spur-of-the-moment decision to run with the bulls. The next day, under the headline "Muerto," the entire front page of the local newspaper was devoted to a large, grisly, color photograph of Tassio -- still looking like a college kid in his shorts, white shirt, black sneakers, sweater tied around his waist and red bandanna around his neck -- impaled on the horn of a thundering bull.
According to news stories, Tassio had trotted from his 8 a.m. starting point to a spot on the cobblestone street before the Plaza Consistorial when he tripped in the chaotic mix of runners and bulls. Veteran runners say anyone who falls should stay down and cover his head. Tassio stood. Just 37 seconds into the run, Castellano, a 1,265-pound bull with a reddish coat, plunged his right horn, curved and 15-inches long, into Tassio's lower back, ripping through a kidney, his liver and a major abdominal artery. The force propelled Tassio more than 20 feet in the air. Emergency workers tried to stem the flow of blood as they rushed him to the hospital, but he was pronounced dead at 8:50 a.m.
As if the shock and pain that followed for the Tassio family weren't enough, the story of his tragic death gets mentioned anew every July. High-profile deaths can turn a family's private grief into public fodder.
"It's the judgment people have the hardest time with," says Jill Scott-Trainer, a licensed clinical social worker, who often counsels people with grief through her JSTtherapy office in Lisle. "I hope they focus on his life and not on how he died."
Instead of the private anniversary of a loved one's death that most of us confront, the Tassio family must endure public comments about the senselessness of his death, news coverage of this year's running of the bulls, and the random ways the event pops up in TV commercials, entertainment and comedy.
"It is unimaginably difficult," says Tassio's younger sister, acknowledging during our phone conversation that this week is difficult enough without giving interviews.
"It's not something we wish to talk about," she says, expressing gratitude for a promise not to reach out to her mom and dad. "We would prefer to live with our personal family loss in private."
Tassio's parents' and sister's lives have taken them to new homes out of state since his death, and they resist reminders. Nineteen years doesn't bring closure.
"Grief isn't a cold. You don't get over it. You learn to live with it," Scott-Trainer says. "The grief is always there. It's just under the surface. They can turn the corner at Jewel and see their favorite cereal and it all comes rushing back."
The counselor says she hopes mentions of Tassio's death rekindle memories of the young man's life for the people who knew him. The running of the bulls is even more difficult to avoid this year because a version is coming Saturday to the suburbs.
Featuring none of the scenery, tradition or romance of Pamplona, The Great Bull Run promises to let customers run with bulls on the track at Hawthorne Race Course in Cicero. Tickets at the door are $75 and runners must be 18 or older. Organizers say 20,000 people have run in the traveling event so far, and only two people have suffered significant (broken wrist and broken pelvis) injuries. While the bulls in Pamplona are killed during bullfights, these bulls make repeat performances.
The Daily Herald wrote a story about the local bull run without mentioning Tassio. Perhaps that is better than this column dwelling on the pain of that loss. Perhaps not.
"Sometimes," Scott-Trainer says, "tears are good."