Private Grief in a Public Age

Private Grief in a Public Age December 29, 2016


The only good thing about the death famous people is that it allows me to discover that they existed in the first place and then go out and find out who they were. I did know about the existence of Carrie Fisher, but had not really heard of Debbie Reynolds, and have not seen a single thing that she was in, so now I will spend the weekend digging up movies and meandering around YouTube.

Which leads me say two things.
One, Grief is Grief. People grieve over what they grieve over. The trouble is that we all do it publicly now, particularly in the mosh pit of social media, and that allows us to instantly judge each other. So, for example, I might see that someone famous died at the same moment that I see that 700 people were killed in Chicago over the weekend. I then have two choices, at the very least. I can say something about the 700 and that lets you know that I know. Or I can say something about the one, perhaps that that one had some kind of artistic impact on my young imagination. If I don’t say anything about the 700 you are free to assume that I didn’t care, and that I am, in fact, a callous and bad person. As my fingers are busy with my nostalgia, yours are busy with your anger that I wasn’t noticing that the guy who cured polio died also.

But really, I think grief* is like prayer. That is to say, personal–only fathomed to a small degree by those outside oneself. It, therefore, doesn’t help for me to come in and tell you that you are wrong. Similarly, the things that you pray about, that trouble you, are yours to bring before God. You can ask me to pray for something or someone, and I will try, but I am not you and I can’t fully understand your burden. That doesn’t make my prayers on your behalf inefficacious, not at all. It just means that you, burdened with anxiety and grief, are going to pray Desperately, which is very different from my hasty, half forgotten arrow prayer. God hears both, but your prayer of desperation is deeper, more profound, more important. (As an aside, of course, as I am trying to remember to pray for you, the Holy Spirit might often confer some of the grief and burden to me, and I might find myself entering into to some of your grief in a way that I hadn’t if I had never begun to pray. In this way God unites us to one another in his own body, through prayer.)

What I’m trying to say is, it’s fine if people are grieving and sorrowing about the deaths of a daughter and mother and maybe not so grieved about the deaths of people they have never heard of. The people who died in Chicago over the weekend are not publicly known in the same way, and so I can’t feel much for them, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t mourned in their own sphere, that God doesn’t know, that their deaths don’t mean anything. Really, we have so cheapened private grief by making it public that now, if every terrible thing isn’t widely known, it’s as if if doesn’t matter or didn’t happen, which is just Not True. Death has become like Instagramming your dinner–only delicious with a Valencia filter.

And Two, marking the deaths of the famous is helpful for me as I try to navigate around this culture. There is only so much I know in various tiny spheres. I know a few things about Africa, and a few things about Binghamton, and a little bit about the Bible and perhaps about raising children. But I am lacking in my understanding of cultural assumptions, historical forces, writers and actors and artists who have shaped a common western experience. And, particularly in art, I just Don’t Know what I wish I knew. So, when Amy Winehouse died, I spent a week listening to someone I had never heard of five minutes before, and being entranced by her voice, the pathos of her life. And when Alexander McQueen died, similarly, I spent quite some time on YouTube watching in amazement the way he clothed the female form. It’s not that I personally have to signal my grief for someone I didn’t know but want to claim as my own. It’s that I think the marking of someone extraordinary, or even beautiful, is the Human thing to do.

In death, in life, humanity is complex, dark, beautiful, interesting, troubled, endlessly fascinating. But we clamor our virtue so constantly now, shutting up the brief bright fellowship of human suffering and brilliance. I’ve done it too. I’m the chief of judgmental jerks on the Internet, the chief of sinners. And I know we all won’t stop the direction we’re traveling. Twitter and Facebook are like the ring that rules us all. It makes us thinner, weaker, emotionally flatter, but we can’t let go.

And now I’m going to go watch the 19 year old Debbie Reynolds dance. Gosh I wish I could remember the names of movies.

*I am not elevating my consideration of the death of Carrie Fisher to actual grief.

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