For the past few days, grief and loss have been recurring themes in most of the things I’ve read. I read Paul Kalanithi’s memoir, “When Breath Becomes Air”. Paul was a neurosurgeon who was diagnosed with a life-threatening lung tumour which unfortunately claimed his life in 2015. His memoir shares his desire to leave behind a legacy in the form of this book. The book deals with man’s never-ending quest to find purpose in life, particularly when faced with mortality. His wife, Lucy, shares how she struggles to make sense of her and her daughter’s life after this tragic setback. It was a sombre read, the kind that makes one realize how our perspectives and wishes change as we begin to understand that the years we once thought we had are now mere months or weeks. You can find more about this book.
In contrast to Paul’s story about sharing one’s grief in a public sphere, I came across a heart-warming, cathartic story from a children’s book called “. “Bertolt” talks about how a young child, who revels in solitude, ends up forming a strange yet sentimental bond with a tree. When spring comes and all the trees bloom except Bertolt, the child is faced with death and loss for the first time. And it’s a loss that only he can comprehend. Far away from others, he proceeds to mourn the passing of a friend, all by himself, in a poignant manner that is far beyond his years.
Tying into these stories is the unfortunate demise of. While the exact circumstances surrounding his suicide are not available so far, his tragic death has rightfully brought forth an outpouring of grief on social media. Friends, colleagues, but most of all, his fans have expressed their pain at this untimely death. I’m hopeful that it will start the conversation on mental health and depression but that is an issue for another article. Within seconds, maybe minutes of the news going viral, one could see the pouring in of tributes, fan art, homages dedicated to Chester in the online domain. And I was intrigued by the nature of grief in the digital form.
I wondered—is there a ‘digital’ way to grieve? How many of the posts that were shared in Chester’s name, were genuinely mourning the loss and how many were simply going with the flow to stay relevant? How do you even ascertain the genuineness of grief online? What happens when a sincere expression of grief is lost in a sea of trendy, show-off posts? How does one find consolation in ‘likes’ and sad ‘reacts’? And most importantly, is a public expression of grief a necessary obligation today?
Public attention will soon move to Chester’s widow and his children. People will be curious about the statement that they will give. As cruel as it may sound, they will be judged on how they grieve. Whether Talinda was dressed appropriately to grieve, whether her voice sounded sad enough, whether her words were picked a bit too carefully, whether her eventual tearing up was far too late?
As I pondered over this I was reminded of a story I read in my standard IX Hindi textbook. The story was titled “दुःख का अधिकार” (The Right To Grieve). It was an extremely moving commentary on how we perceive grief. An old lady from a poor household had just lost her son that morning to snakebite. Before she even had the time to process her loss, she noticed that her daughter-in-law and grandchild were hungry. With a stoical attitude, she went to the marketplace to sell melons. All this while, people around her shamed and mocked her for being concerned with only making money. They pitted her against a lady belonging to the upper class who couldn’t leave her bed for months on end after her son’s death. The author ended the story by commenting that even the right to grieve in one’s own way is a luxury for some of us.
An aspect of grief that we don’t often realize is the commercial one. Music producers and business stakeholders often capitalize on the death of celebrities. Despite his death in 2009, Michael Jackson’s financial earnings in 2016 were a staggering $825 million. Even Prince and David Bowie sold millions of albums after their demise. Brands are often quick to jump on the bandwagon of a tragic bereavement. However, not all of them can make a subtle statement without coming across as desperate. The jury is still out on whether this kind of ‘exploitation’, if it could even be termed that, is fair game or not. And so, as long as there is a tragedy to mourn, there will be a brand waiting to market themselves as subliminally as they can.
What, then, should the nature of grief be? And what constitutes appropriate grieving? Based on the criticism that Facebook received for its inclusion of flags and icons on profile pictures for events like the Pulse Club shooting, in Orlando, USA and the terror attack in France, not for their intentions, but more for the users’ perceived lack of sincerity whilst using them, one ends up perplexed.
On social media, your grief should be personal, but not private enough that you don’t end up writing anything. It should be mainstream with a hint of individuality, but not individual enough that your followers don’t understand the references you’re making. It should be as artistic or expressive as you can make it so that it catches others’ eyes, but not so much that it comes across as self-promotional. It’s a labyrinth of expectations to navigate through. And sadly, someone will always deem it inappropriate enough.
So, am I advocating that one must abstain from grieving on social media? To answer that question, no, I am not. I’ve personally tried not to make a show of my dejections and mourning digitally. It’s something I stick to doing at an individual level. I find kind of companionship in the child in Bertolt, in the sense, that my grief is something private to me. And I wish to handle it individually. Am I then guilty of putting forth a persona of joy and frivolity in my social media profiles? Am I inauthentic for not sharing as much online? No. I may be an incomplete version of myself online, but I’m not inauthentic. And just as my lack of expression of grief online isn’t an indicator of a lack of grief itself, similarly, I can’t vouch that your eulogies to be indicative of an insurmountable sense of loss.
As much as we would like to think that our tributes and homages are all for the departed soul, we can’t deny the fact that our grief is also our way of expressing who we are, digitally and otherwise. When we talk about how much we feel disheartened at the loss of someone we adored, we are invariably disclosing, by virtue of association, what makes us, us. I can’t tell you if it is appropriate to bemoan your divorce online or whether a ‘RIP’ for your favourite actor on your Twitter is fine, but when you do the same for a grandparent or the loss of someone close to you, what does it mean then?
Chester’s death was extremely unfortunate. He has left behind multitudes of people mourning him. Some publicly on social media, some at home cuddled up with their headphones. I feel that as long as his family, or any family that has lost a loved one, for that matter, gets to mourn the loss of the departed in their own way, we can all find comfort in our seemingly collective, yet somehow private grieving.
A version of this article was published on the author’s blog