Except that it be spontaneous and sincere, there is no right or wrong way to grieve.

Some imagine it as a process; others know that it can strike unpredictably, sometimes years after loss. Grief is personal and erratic. Sympathy, which the nation needed to show after the loss of seven astronauts in the destruction of the space shuttle Columbia, is different altogether: It is a gesture more than a feeling, often a public gesture, sometimes for people we don't know at all. It is necessary even when it feels obligatory and useless. Sympathy need not even be deeply felt; we express it as an act of community and fellow feeling and, for that reason, we're happy to have ritualized forms that take the risk -- that it be done too clumsily, too exorbitantly, too dramatically -- out of the act.

The media, especially the round-the-clock electronic media, began the first Saturday in February by trying to measure a grief that hadn't formed yet; it is, perhaps, their misguided way of showing sympathy.

"We must bring you news this morning of a national -- international -- tragedy that extends from the United States to India and Israel and surely beyond even those borders to the rest of the world," said Scott Simon of NPR. In terms of grief, the pang-in-the-night sort of grief, the scope of the tragedy was hardly national or international; sympathy would flow from all quarters, but as tragedy, the event belonged intimately only to the family and friends of those who had died. To confuse these things, as the media did -- clumsily, exorbitantly and dramatically -- is to force an unnecessarily exhausting public emotional spectacle on people at a time when they are doing their nervous best to imagine and prepare for larger, as yet unknown national traumas.

By the day after the accident, the sense of national calamity was almost eerie, as if it were being manufactured and delivered predigested. The Sunday morning talk shows had changed their theme music, substituting slower, more reflective variations on the punchy, brass-driven military riffs they ordinarily use. It was reminiscent of those surreal days in the early '80s when Soviet dictators were dropping like flies, the first clue to their deaths often the mysterious switch to somber classical music on Soviet airwaves. Does the change of canned background music, made according to some unknown calculus in some back office of a TV production studio, reflect a mood or create one?

We are innately suspicious of spectacle that steps out too far ahead of the national mood. "The extreme valorization of the space shuttle and the choreographed pageantry of, say, the recent State of the Union speech seem disconcertingly of a piece," wrote Robert Kuttner for the American Prospect. "You can sense a drift to something not quite totalitarian but far from Jeffersonian." After the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, poet Howard Nemerov penned verses to mark the event. "It is admittedly difficult for a whole/ Nation to mourn and be seen to do so . . . " he began. It's the "and be seen to do so" that captures the essence of the problem, the circularity of a people not quite sure what they're feeling because they see themselves feeling even before the simple reality of loss has settled in.

We don't all mourn, and the pictures we find to prove the opposite of this simple fact almost always ring hollow. The makeshift shrine, the jumble of yesterday's flowers and dime-store teddy bears, is a fast and easily quantifiable symbol of mourning; but it is too new a symbol, too easily imitated, too little reflective of the people involved in the loss, to be a reliable marker of the national sentiment. It made a certain sense to bring stuffed animals and flowers to mark the death of an infantilized princess of a dysfunctional royal family, but isn't it an odd choice of symbols to honor seven extraordinarily competent men and women, all of them flourishing in middle age?

By now the first Web sites have been dedicated as well, offering a familiar collage of poems and pictures and links to songs and memorabilia. On one site, a mother attempts to explain her feelings (do they seem just a bit mass-produced?) to her son, who approaches the loss with a child's healthy skepticism: "My son has asked why this is so tragic for me personally because I did not know them and many others on Earth will also die today, whose lives are no less valuable," she wrote. "I grieve for their families and friends, for the loss to our Nation, India and Israel and for the loss to NASA and the Space Program. For me, it is important to say this to you."

The "for me" of her grief is unsettling. Our expressions of sympathy for others' loss may feel inadequate to us, but they don't become any less so by adopting the conceit that we, too, are personally stricken. We may be sad that they are sad, but we don't personally grieve.

"Your sorrow is beyond words, but not beyond the caring and sympathy of friends. I am touched and saddened by your loss." Thus reads a Hallmark sympathy card picked at random from the racks of a local drugstore. Your sorrow is beyond words (I presume to know its dimensions), but not beyond the caring and sympathy of friends (I presume to be indispensable). I am touched and saddened by your loss (I feel your pain). The media, at their unctuous worst, rise no higher than this greeting card's succession of self-important sentiments: We will tell you how big your tragedy is; we will get to the bottom of it for you; we will show you how pained we are, too.

If a nation as large and heterogeneous as ours can feel anything coherent in a collective way, this country now feels fear. If the displays of grief over the loss of Columbia felt at times disproportionate, and more about Nemerov's "and be seen to do so" than real mourning, it is likely because, while terrified of outside menace, we welcomed a distraction. Grief and fear are two of the last vestiges of immediate collective feeling; an outsized grief for a relatively small tragedy was, for a week or so, preferable to fear fanned large by a threat of unknown dimensions.

President Bush, or his speechwriters, found the right tone for a loss that had national symbolic importance yet relatively little real national emotional importance.

When he spoke to the nation the day of the accident, he was brief and his expression of sympathy was elegantly worded and appropriately formulaic, which is all a proper expression of sympathy can ever be. "The crew of the Shuttle Columbia did not return safely to Earth," he said. "Yet we can pray that all are safely home." It was a speech filled with what Nemerov, in his poem for the crew of Challenger, called "silvery platitudes," which are preferable to the aping or personal appropriation of pain.

There is an important reason, both individually and collectively, to prefer the gesture of sympathy to the show of grief. Real grief is a certainty in life; every person born into this world, if he or she is fortunate to live a long life, will certainly see grandparents, parents, siblings, mentors and friends die. These kinds of grief exhaust us, and they are unavoidable. A tasteful display of sympathy, when others suffer, is the best way to save our strength.

Philip Kennicott is culture critic of The Post.