Alissa's note: I struggle - like a lot of you, I suspect - with how to process the death of celebrities who both seem important to me and have nothing to do with me at all. How do we grieve in a social media age? So, I asked one of our regular critics, Ken Morefield, to give us his thoughts. Here's his answer.
The news came, as it so often does these days, via Facebook. Hannah (not her real name), a fierce, funny, former student—one of the few bright spots from my two year stint at a university where I just didn’t fit—had untreatable cancer.
She was not the first former student forced to grapple with her own mortality while my own day of reckoning still lay comfortably over what I hoped was a distant horizon. The truth is, professors face premature mortality a lot more often than I ever anticipated. Work at a university that is big enough (or at a smaller one long enough) and someone’s shortened life will be your inevitable hard reminder of the law of averages.
Responding to death in the public sphere is not a challenge unique to any generation or profession. But it certainly feels as though the changing times have affected how frequently the professorate and the fourth estate—two groups of which I am a long-standing member—are asked to meet that challenge. Weak ties that might previously have been updated once a year in an alumni newsletter or renewed years down the line at an academic reunion now proliferate through social media. Entertainment journalism increasingly means disseminating news about celebrities rather than merely reviewing their work. Plus we are raising a generation that has lived its entire life on Facebook and doesn’t know how to do anything—including die or grieve—without it.
As we live more and more of our lives online, it stands to reason that we will experience certain of life’s milestones in the midst of our virtual communities and turn to them, rather than our families or local communities, for instruction on how to behave during those events.
So, what of it? People die, some of them before they reach old age. And people who experience that fact for the first time often sound glib or even stupid to those who have to watch them flail. I learned that lesson when I was ten. When my nineteen year-old brother was murdered in a fast food restaurant robbery, I actually thought, “At least he lived a long life.” He had, after all, lived almost twice as long as I had. I can’t imagine, in retrospect, how incomprehensibly stupid that must have sounded to my parents and siblings. Somehow they found a space within their own grief to tolerate my shallower and more superficial version.
Because that family tragedy happened prior to the Internet age, I had plenty of time to slowly realize that I had more experience dealing with grief than most of my peers and not a few of my (younger) teachers. When others experienced for the first time what I had known for most of my life, the intensity and singularity of their grief might have struck me as false were its expressions not so eerily and wearily familiar. Where I had once wanted, perhaps needed, to express my feelings, I increasingly wished for nothing more than to avoid saying something stupid by remaining silent. Yet, ironically, I seemed to have an invisible beacon that showed up on others’ “grief radar.” People, even those who hardly knew me, felt I was safe to speak to. Once, at the dining hall, a fellow student I didn’t know tearfully confessed she was awaiting a life-or-death medical test result. For all my expertise, “how do you feel?” was the best I could muster, and I was the only one who could offer even that.