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Let us grieve whether in person or online

Critics of online mourning of public figures fail to recognize the complexity of celebrity and human grief.  |  Photo Illustration by John Uy/THE CHIMES


With the recent deaths of Antonin Scalia, Alan Rickman, David Bowie, Harper Lee and Prince, the world mourns these incredible icons who have so greatly and widely impacted us — whether personally, culturally, artistically or politically.

displays of grief

Our friends on Facebook post dedications to these public figures from simple messages of “rest in peace” to long explanations of how they have personally influenced them. On all corners of the Internet, users express their grief toward the passing of great men and women who challenged and inspired us.

But some disapprove of this expression of mourning. Ann Friedman writes in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times that the public grieving of celebrity deaths really just celebrates ourselves. Alex Proud writes in The Telegraph public grieving of celebrities amounts to mere narcissism and virtue signaling.

They essentially argue that these public displays of grief cannot be sincere. Those posting tributes to these figures have probably never met them and are merely over-emoting, being politically correct or trying to seem like a cultured and caring person, said Proud. He notes that perhaps if they were alone on a park bench sobbing, then he would believe their sincerity, but the public nature of their grieving clearly indicates it is merely a performance.

complexity of grief

However, both of these critiques fail to consider both the complexity of celebrity and the complexity of grief.

People like Scalia and Lee transformed politics and literature. Scalia’s dedication to textualism and originalism marks him as a constitutional visionary. Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” challenged generations to face racial inequality in the justice system and inspired countless lawyers to fight it.

But perhaps when criticizing public mourning, these columnists do not refer to Supreme Court justices and renowned authors. Musicians and actors have enormous impact on society as well. Good music challenges us to think more deeply about ourselves and our society and actors portray our own experiences, allowing us to know we are not alone and allowing others to understand and feel compassion towards others’ experiences, even if they differ their own.

grief never ends

In either case, say critics, mourning should be personal, not public. But Michael Rugnetta, host of PBS Idea Channel, counters this notion. He cites Sigmund Freud’s influence on Western conceptions of grief as a deeply personal process that must not mingle with our public lives out of respect and deference — it is something that one must “get through.” Public grieving appears to be a sign of weakness or incivility in American culture. “Grief is and often should be communal. It is not a sign of weakness, but an admission of loss,” said Rugnetta.

“One cannot ‘get through it’ because grief never ends,” challenges Rugnetta. Across cultures, mourning has been communal — public. Western tradition has made it shameful and private. Yes, people can post a photo of their dinner and then one of a deceased celebrity as tribute because people are complex — we can feel more than one emotion at once.

Those who criticize online mourning must challenge their preconceptions of grief. If people wish to grieve privately, they may, and if people wish to grieve publicly, they may. Everyone mourns differently and to say someone mourns “wrong” fails to recognize the complexity of human lamentation.


Your Turn.  Post a Comment

  1. Claire Schwartz

    Hi, Jacqueline - as a professional Grief Coach, I want to applaud you on your thoughtful and compassionate article. I agree with every point you make, not only about how we treat grief and grievers in this culture, but how people misunderstand and are quick to judge when we mourn a performer or celebrity. There is a lot of "shoulding" that takes place that keeps people helpless and stuck in their suffering. We have so many things exactly backwards in terms of what actually helps and heals.
    In terms of artists whom we mourn, their work may have spoken to us when we had no words or held us up when we could barely stand. That support can be invaluable to someone in need, and when that artist leaves us, it can feel like losing a dear friend. That kind of pain is not to be mocked.
    One final thought - I might quibble a bit with the idea that grief never ends - it sounds hopeless and frightening when people are told that. After more than 30 losses, I prefer to work with the premise that we can get better, and we can learn to weave our losses into the landscape of our lives as they become part of the tapestry of who we are. I find that reflects a more authentic and achievable goal.
    Thank you for your kind perspective. In all you do, I wish you well. May 11, 2016

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