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.
As I advanced in years, my peers began catching up to me in terms of being initiated with grief, but my head start always seemed to give me an advantage at avoiding the really big mistakes we all make when others look to us for comfort. If I didn’t always know how to help, I had read Job enough times to know what gestures and sayings had the greatest capacity to make things worse. Catch up my peers eventually did, and I thought I was done with the role of experienced trailblazer, at least as far as matters non-professional were concerned.
But then the Internet happened, and I realized the role of a journalist mirrors that of a professor in one unexpected way: the people you instruct move on, endlessly, often to be replaced by those who need you to say what you have said already but which they are hearing for the first time.
So, in that vein, here are some “take them or leave them” suggestions for appropriate ways to respond to death (or people dying) in the public square. They are all, admittedly, based on personal experience and were learned the hard way.
First—and most importantly—it’s not about you. Avoid the temptation to turn someone else’s death or grief into a teaching moment. However noble the lesson—and there have been some good, important, and true ones in the wake of Robin Williams’s passing—using someone’s recent death to highlight it risks coming across as opportunistic and exploitative. I’m tempted to say that the reason it risks coming across that way is because it is those things.
Second, remind yourself that the first few tastes of grief can be overpowering. We should try to be charitable in our judgments towards those whose method of dealing with it involves being more expressive than we might be. Yes, I suspect that in a year or two or five people who aren’t actually narcissists or attention whores may look back on things they wrote about Robin Williams (or Philip Seymour Hoffman) and be chagrined at how much they treated him, even in death, as a means to an end. But if they don’t, if they truly are opportunists, then our calling them out only brings them the attention they crave and encourages them to act out again the next time somebody passes.
For the person who is dying or who has close rather than weak ties to the deceased, the clearest lessons I’ve learned are about what not to do. I don’t say I understand or that I know how they feel, because I don’t.
I try my best to let the grieving or the terminally ill define the relationship and choose the nature and amount of support they want from me. If a terminally ill person or family survivor wants to use that death to bring attention to an issue, I try to listen respectfully. If someone wants to seize the remains of the day, I try not to judge how they spend their last, precious moments.
For the survivor, I never pray for anything but comfort. For the sick, I never pray for anything but a miraculous recovery, not because I am confident that particular prayer will be answered but because I’ve learned that dishonest prayers are the only kind that are truly worthless.
And I never tell a dying or grieving person that I am praying for him unless he or she solicits that information. Our prayers don’t always have to be announced publicly to be effective, do they?
And as for suggestions for walking alongside those surrounding the dying person, or perhaps experiencing grief for the first time? Again, it’s not about you. The worst thing you can do is add to another’s burden by expecting her or him to figure it all out for you.
The second worst is not to try. I know that seems counter to all this, but it’s important: don’t let the fear of the saying the wrong thing cause you to retreat from those who may just need and crave your loving presence more than your airtight explanations. Yes, you can share your own pain, disappointment, and even daily frustrations. That is what friends are for, even dying or grieving ones. Just do your best to make sure you keep in mind what is yours and what is theirs.
In Russell Hoban’s fantasy masterpiece Riddley Walker, the eponymous protagonist, a precocious cross between Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield, passes a crater in which his father was recently crushed to death beneath a piece of machinery. “Your turn now, my turn later, “ he thinks.
There is something chilling and sublime in his response, and it is one of many reasons I’ve cherished that novel since my college days. In the great liberal arts tradition, it communicated truth to me. It helped me to process an idea, a feeling, a fact, in such a way that would subsequently make me not just a better teacher or art critic but, I hope, a better person.
That truth is that some things can’t be taught: they can only be learned. We are defined less by the answers we give on life’s impossible exams than the choices we make when presented with them. Few choices are harder than holding fast to those whom life has bound us—strongly or weakly—when their presence reminds us of how fragile is our own grip on happiness, health, or life itself, and how soon we will all feel our own fingers slipping.
Kenneth R. Morefield is an Associate Professor of English at Campbell University. He is the editor of Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, Volumes I & II, and the founder of 1More Film Blog.