The Evolution of Mourning 7

Photo: Colin Brough

I was on the KFOG Morning Show yesterday, and like all things that require me to think on my feet, I’m not very satisfied with my answers. I mean, it was totally fun and fine, but now I find myself running over the questions I was asked and revising them for nobody. Specifically I was thinking about Steve Jobs. The host asked me what I thought about people mourning Steve Jobs on Facebook. I rarely ever mourn for celebrities. Although I thought Steve Jobs was a great man. I saw a really inspiring speech he gave to Stanford graduates, even though he never graduated himself. I’ve owned several Macs, iPods, iPhones, and other Apple products. But this didn’t at all make me feel entitled to comment on someone else’s life and legacy. So I didn’t. I scrolled through the links, videos, and tributes, but I said nothing.

Some people left flowers in the doorway of the Apple store in downtown San Francisco. Some people didn’t know where to go, or how to express all the pain and loss they were feeling for a great man dying young. Whenever someone dies, we are immediately confronted with our own mortality. This scares the shit out of us. We rarely talk about dying or grief, even though it’s a reality we all eventually face. It’s considered impolite. We only talk about it like it’s something we should recover from. Like an illness. Social media, perhaps more than any new technology, allows us to feel close to people we hardly know. I think this is truly wonderful sometimes, that we have a medium to publicly express our grief, but it also leads to a lot of confusion, and big, misplaced feelings.

When Amy Winehouse died a few months ago, it happened at the same time as the bombings in Norway. People on Facebook were pissed that Amy Winehouse, a junkie punchline, was taking the spotlight away from the 80 or so innocent victims of a terrorist attack. This reaction shocked me. As if there is a death hierarchy, as if someone who was struggling with addiction didn’t deserve an ounce of sympathy. (PS: A toxicology report revealed Amy Winehouse had no illegal substances in her body when she died.) Tragedy isn’t a zero-sum game. Mourning one loss doesn’t detract from the loss of others. These kinds of reactions though, the vitriol, the blaming, the sense of entitlement we feel about people and events so far removed from our everyday realities, are becoming increasingly common thanks to social media. I know for a fact that none of my Facebook friends would ever say, “Eh, we all saw that coming,” in response to a death of someone they actually knew. So what is it about the medium, the third-party distance that seems to absolve us from our otherwise functioning sense of humanity?

This is what I’ve been thinking about. I don’t mean to belittle or challenge the way others react to situations online. But I am curious about how technology is changing us. If Facebook gets us talking about death in a substantial way, maybe the confusion and anger are worthwhile.

Here’s a beautiful vignette on death by Paul Madonna and Cheryl Strayed.

I’ve been thinking too about connection, and that in order to be successful in social media, you have to care about helping other people. You have to give as much as get. And yeah, I know the Internet is mostly made of cats and repurposed memes from the 80s, but what makes things like Twitter meaningful are those glimpses of community, when you can reach out on behalf of someone else and say, “This moved me.”

This week’s AfterEllen column could be summed up in two words: Walk away. But, of course, there’s lots more to it than that.

A friend of mine recently said she felt like she didn’t know how to set up her writerly self in a new city. “What did you do?” she asked. I told her that I spent the first five months here watching The Bachelor. In there, my dad also got cancer. And my relationship fell apart. San Francisco taught me that a lot of things in my life had to end before I could begin again. And the only way I knew how to do that was to write.

As Steve Jobs put it, “[D]eath is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.”

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7 thoughts on “The Evolution of Mourning

  • Theresa Geary

    Excellent blog! Unless FB becomes totally automated, we need to remember the human element and stop hiding behind the anonymity and impersonal nature of the internet.
    To judge someone like Amy Winehouse is just bad form and rude!!!!
    Death is the great human equalizer.

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  • celine

    oh, i see, it’s a MP3 download… i’m always wary of downloading stuff when not expecting it… maybe add something like (20MB MP3 download). sexy, i know.

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  • Lauren

    Replace “The Bachelor” with “Bones” and I am clearly doing everything right on schedule. Thanks.

    I’ve been thinking about the internet and grief too. Like when Troy Davis was executed, the outrage and mourning all over Facebook. And how those posts immediately made any pictures of LOLHippos or my own status updates about vintage typewriters and shit seem so painfully trite and immature. It’s a weird sort of “town square” that Facebook and Twitter create, where this really serious community organizing rage-against-the-system stuff gets thrown up there right alongside Hungover Owls, and then they’re often combined. I don’t know what that says about what Facebook is doing to us, but the tentative conclusion I’ve come to is that social media is a tool that can be used really effectively. Like you said, if you foster connection.

    As far as Steve Jobs goes, I’m always torn between the recognition that a real live person with a grieving family has just passed away, and the uneasiness with the lauding – Steve Jobs was an entrepreneur with great ideas that I’m typing about on my MACBOOK. . . . .but he was also one of “the 1%” whose iPads are made in Chinese Sweatshops by workers who had to sign a no-suicide pact. #Commiesoapbox,sorry Anyway, great post as always.

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  • De

    In response to your question: “So what is it about the medium, the third-party distance that seems to absolve us from our otherwise functioning sense of humanity?”

    There have been a few studies done on that topic. What I gathered from the research was that while social media provides a certain level of connection, it doesn’t provide the same type of connection as sitting with someone face to face. We’re socialized to react or respond accordingly given certian visual, non-verbal cues when we interact with other people, but the internet/social media takes away that socialization. It’s why the “well, I was expecting that” reaction (Amy Winehouse’s death) is, unfortunately, common from users of social media. Those same individuals wouldn’t say that if they were presented with friends or relatives of the deceased (at least we hope not).

    The internet’s a great thing, we get to stay in touch with friends and family, get news updates , “meet” people we probably wouldn’t if not for online communities and read your writing (which I love, by the way). But, it’s a game changer too and that can be pretty disconcerting.

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  • Michael L. Moore

    Interesting. After I read it, I thought about Facebook. I’m currently friends with at least 3 dead people–all three died of cancer in the past two years. Two women and one man. The man died recently aged 67, the older woman was 57, the younger woman 46 or 7. Rectal cancer, breast cancer and non-Hodgkins lymphoma. The 47 year old was a close friend of the 67 year old’s wife (with whom I am also friends, irl and on Facebook.) Jerry’s progress I followed through his own and his wife’s status reports on FB, so when he died it wasn’t a big surprise. When Cindy died, her passing away had been so public for so long–two or three years, with a memorial service she attended and participated in a month before she died, that her friends missed her a lot, but we had been well-prepared. But Fran–whom I never met, and whom I hadn’t communicated much with, died while I was just getting a sense of her, appreciating her more and more, getting into reading her well-written blog. She liked and commented on some of my postings to Facebook; I liked some of her things back. We communicated directly, not mediated through our common acquaintance. And when her husband put out the word she was gone, I felt more bereft than I had losing the two I had actually known.

    So, in two cases, I “saw it coming.” And I reacted more calmly, more dispassionately. In the 3rd case, I barely knew the person, but through photos and writing had already begun to feel kinship–and felt the greater wrench when she was taken away. I wanted to know her longer.

    Perhaps the social media speed up the process of acquaintance; some analysts think only face to face acquaintance is real, and any emotions we develop in relation to strangers we meet only virtually are mere illusion. I’m not so sure. I accidentally chatted with Joyce Maynard for a few minutes on Facebook a few weeks ago and it felt like the most natural thing in the world, even though we’ve never met, and I’ve admired her for nearly 40 years. Jane Smiley and I have directed wisecracks at one another in someone else’s comments section. Finding the line between acquaintance and whatever its opposite is, is becoming harder.

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