Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Way We Mourn

This week, Death huffed and puffed and blew our little community down. A longtime school leader passed -- Bob wrote about it -- and a more incomprehensible level of tragedy befell a family as two small children and their grandmother died in a freakish accident.

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.


goofytakemyhand said...


#1 While I'm not on any Social Media anymore - the Bible quotes are prevalent in times of joy, sadness, marriage, death, or just daily life. It's an excuse of trolling for likes.

#2 I'm not sure I agree with the "holier than thou" reference when it comes to the death of the three family members. I went to school with the two sons and played ball with the older one. They are a very devout family and I've never heard anyone utter a bad word about them. People are still making sense of the tragedy which has left four children without a mother, and one of them without her mother and her two little children.

While I personally would send a handwritten sympathy card and a donation without fanfare as I feel it tacky to post a message on a wall, others feel the need to vent their emotions in such a tragic situation. Life is precious, and these three deaths (along with the administrator) is really a frightening reminder of how precarious life and health are. Hell, I coached basketball the afternoon I was rushed to the ER with left side paralysis. Two weeks later, I learned I'll never walk unassisted again (not looking for sympathy).

When a certain retired chain-smoking english teacher and colleague of you and Bob's died, I eulogized him on my wall. I wasn't trolling for likes, but just trying to make sense of the situation.

And let's face it, we're in a society where actual human contact has been replaced with social media, texting, etc, The closest these forms of media appear to bring us together in times of happiness, sadness, crisis, and celebration, or any other form of sentimentality, the further apart we really are as an in-body society.

Okay, this is probably the longest comment on the blog in five years.

Billy said...

Thanks for the comments, goofy, long or short.

If I didn't make it clear enough -- and that's entirely likely -- this blog is very much about a ME problem, not a THEM problem. I have not cornered the market on How To Properly Mourn. My own preferences haven't rendered me somehow more stable or sane than others. So the judgments I instinctively have aren't particularly helpful or healthy.

At both funerals yesterday, a speaker mentioned, in glowingly positive ways, the powerful testimony and outpouring of emotions and support that had been expressed via social media.

Adding to my gross hypocrisy, I'm using a semi-anonymous blog post, perhaps the most pernicious and self-serving of all social media outlets, to work through this whole mess.

So yes, I do agree with most of what you wrote. Thanks for the long comment.

troutking said...

This is worthy of a lot of thinking and sociological analysis. However, it's Friday afternoon and my brain is not capable of either of those things right now. So, let me just say I think your excellent post is very thought-provoking and I agree with much of what you say about using social media for those particular emotions. Beyond that, I'll have to wait for Kumo Wednesday for any further discussion.

Robert Berman said...

I'm certainly not immune from the narcissism of expecting/wanting other people to react to situations as I do. As usual, the first thought that went through my head when confronted with a philosophical question was a song: in this case, Alan Jackson's 9/11 song "Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning," which catalogues the various reactions people had to the disaster as it impinged upon them, generating guilt, or relief, or paranoia, or wrath, or patriotism, etc. In my imagination, I respond charitably to each person's reaction of grief, without impugning their actions or motives. But in reality, I'm not that generous.