Because it's 2014, these events transformed my Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts into modern Wailing Walls.
My high school classmates and friends, current students and young alums, coworkers and colleagues, hundreds of people in my circle took to social media and did at least one, and often several, of the following:
- changed their profile pictures to show a sort of solidarity in mourning
- posted pictures of themselves with the deceased
- posted expressions of sympathy to the walls of the surviving family members
- quoted Bible verses about grace or grief or the comfort of God's presence
- mentioned that they were praying for specific people by name
The whole thing gives me hives.
What I see when I see this outward and very public outpouring on social media is a dangerous dance with a softer kind of narcissism that has infected most of our culture to one level or another, myself most certainly included.
What I see is one person after another trying to prove how close they were to the deceased, providing evidence to their world of friends and followers just how much pain and sadness they deserve to feel.
What I see is people desperate to turn tragedy into a Statement, often personal, sometimes religious, almost always more about the person making the Statement than about the person who died.
This is not a criticism of "them." It is a criticism of me. So, if you're reading this and have done or do any of these things, please trust that I'm not writing this to tell you you're wrong in doing these things. I'm writing because I do not understand them. Mourning is increasingly a Shared and Liked experience. The way we mourn as a society is adapting to new technologies, and I am not.
My daughters will gleefully tell you how pathetically soft I am. I cry. Quite easily, in fact. So it's not that I'm afraid to cry, or uncomfortable doing so. But I grew up in a family where the most painful emotions were the most precious of possessions.
Happiness? Joy? Fun? Playfulness? These are inexpensive trinkets. They are the gifts you can give to strangers and loved ones alike. They cost you so little of your soul, but they can brighten entire rooms, whole crowds of people.
But sorrow? Pain? Confusion? The feeling of being a tiny sailboat tossed in a tempest of emotions that your mind and heart can't manage? The sense of needing to get something out of you but not knowing exactly what it is or how to extract it? The feeling that tears are, ultimately, an expression of something much worse that is pushing itself out of your body in the tiniest of increments, drop by drop?
These feelings are mine, dammit, and they are giant squeaky-clean windows into my soul, into the darkest and most secretive corners. I hoard them like I would a winning Powerball ticket, like I would my first love letter from the girl in fifth grade.
I can think of no compliment I can pay a friend or loved one than being able to expose this rawness, these gaping wounds of my emotional core, to them. If I have cried in your presence -- not about E.T. touching Elliot's heart or Grug telling his daughter he loves her before preparing to sacrifice his life for his family's, but about the real pain of my real life in the real now -- it is the equivalent of claiming you as my blood brother or sister. I am cutting myself open and asking you not to shy away from the blood.
To write this out, and then to act like my way of mourning is somehow better, or superior, is foolishness. It’s insanity. Not only does my way of managing it seem, at a bare minimum, psychologically unhealthy, but it also seems every bit as self-involved and egotistical as the acts of those who bleed their hearts onto a status update.
Is there a right way to mourn? Is there some yellow brick road we are all supposed to tread when tragedy attacks us, leaving us with anything from a skinned knee to a weeklong stint in the ER to a paralysis that can freeze us for months or even years?
No. There’s only mourning in ways we know, in ways we’ve seen, in ways we believe or hope can cut us a path through the forest and back into some sunlight.