Judging Grief

When the death of Apple co-founder and former CEO Steve Jobs was announced last week, remembrances and outpourings of grief quickly commenced. And, almost as quickly, criticism followed. Not criticism of Steve Jobs (although there was plenty of that even before his death), but criticism of the way people were expressing their grief. It seemed as if the culture of Apple-H8rs had given extra leeway to look down upon the sadness that fans of Apple products were expressing at the passing of its figurehead. Criticism ranged from “Steve Jobs wasn’t God,” to “He didn’t even invent any of this stuff, anyway,” to “You know, other people who actually did important things died today, too!” And it all makes me uncomfortable with the way it’s found acceptable to judge the way others grieve.

Grief is, perhaps, one of the purest, most personal, and most private emotions that we have. One that, usually, we get to experience with our family, close friends, loved ones. One that we hope goes free from judgement. When our grief is expressed about a public figure, however, the public arena is the only one that seems appropriate for it sometimes. The nature of Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and other services make it easy to share that grief, that sadness, with others. It also makes it easy for those who disagree to express that.

Here’s what gets me, though: Telling someone that what they feel is invalid is disrespectful. You can feel something different than what they feel, but to say their feelings are wrong is to say they, themselves, are wrong. To invalidate someone’s grief is just plain cold. To deride and insult them for expressing their grief is… I just don’t have a word for that.

I can’t deny that my own experiences with grief greatly influence my point of view here. When my grandfather, who had raised me my entire life, passed away a few months into my senior year of high school, the way I expressed my grief would, perhaps, have been fodder for criticism. Knowing my grandfather was very old and having seen him grow more and more frail, I never had any delusions that he would live to see me graduate from high school. So it wasn’t a shock when, after months of being in the hospital, he died. Having a reputation for being emotional, a crier, a drama queen, for making everything a big deal, I went to the other side of the emotional swing with his death. I kept it all inside. Only one close friend even knew that he’d been sick. I declined my family’s offer to fly me up north to his funeral, citing concerns about cost, but really, knowing that would be an absence that would have to be explained… to my teachers, my classmates, the cast of the play I was assistant directing. And with that explanation, the dam would break.

Less than two weeks after my grandfather’s death came another… a former classmate, a year ahead of me, just 18 years old. The entire community grieved his loss. He was one of those people that touches everyone they meet. Active in student council, sports, drama, and chorus, he was someone everyone knew. His passing coincided with the opening of our fall play. A dress rehearsal followed by the viewing of his body. His funeral (an excused absence from school), followed by a final dress rehearsal. The other assistant director and I, both close to him from drama and chorus, took turns giving a memorial speech before the performances. Again, I had to be strong. Not the emotional, all-about-me person that I had a reputation for. The strong senior, holding it together, holding our drama family together, in the face of this terrible loss. In the face of two terrible losses, one unspoken.

It eventually came out, of course. I was late for school one day, rushing into the musical theatre class in the middle of a dance rehearsal. As I trudged up on stage, my drama teacher barked my name. He gruffly asked me what was going on with me. It came out like a flood. I was late because my grandmother had gotten a job and had to leave before I got up and I had to take the bus now and I was still figuring it out and we had just moved that weekend and I don’t know if you know this, but my grandad died… That was how I slipped it in there, just as a reasoning for why we’d had to move, not as an excuse for my behavior. “I know,” he replied. “But not from you. Why didn’t I hear it from you?” The excuses tumbled out; because I wanted to be strong, because I didn’t want to make a big deal about it, because I didn’t want the pity, because of the other, more tragic, death that followed it, because of the play, because of this, because of that. He gave me a hug and told me to clean my face and join the class.

Two years earlier, I experienced the first time I grieved over a celebrity. James Stewart had died. It was a Christmas tradition for my grandad and I to watch It’s a Wonderful Life every year and that, combined with the good, old-fashioned Everyman quality that Stewart had, made him inextricably linked with my grandad in my mind. Knowing, as I said before, that my grandad would eventually pass, this reminder of it, the loss of someone who was so very much like him, it hit me hard. In a way, I grieved more for this celebrity that I never knew than I did in the immediate aftermath of my grandad’s death. Because it was more distant, more removed, it was easier for me to express my feelings about it. The death of my grandad was too close, too real.

In a way, this is the service that the death of notable people provides to us. For people who grew up using computers, playing Oregon Trail or Carmen Sandiego on Apple IIs, who discovered new music or got their news via podcast thanks to iTunes, who use FaceTime to talk to relatives and friends thousands of miles away, the loss of the facilitator of all those things is an acute one. For those whom segregation is still a recent memory or who hear stories of atrocities from those only a generation older, the death of Fred Shuttleworth is equally biting. Any notable death, from a fashion designer to a princess to a King of Pop to a troubled chanteuse, is sad for anyone who knew them personally and also sad for anyone who felt connected to them, whether it was through their work, their life, or their activism. When anyone is mourning, it’s not a time for criticism of how they choose to mourn. It’s a time for support and respect. Even on the Internet.

By Crystal Coleman

Florida girl living on the west coast. During the day, I consult in social media and community management. I have a really cute puppy (Elphaba) and a British husband (I keep him for his accent) as well as an unhealthy relationship with parentheses.

6 replies on “Judging Grief”

Thanks for this. I’m sniffling. I didn’t personally grieve when Steve died, but my fiance did, and still is, and so it feels a little like a punch in the gut every time I have to see someone say, “God, guys, don’t forget, he wasn’t VERY CHARITABLE.” Frankly, neither are comments like that one.

“Moved” may be the better description for how this piece makes me feel. You are so right – we live in a very strange culture that for whatever reason allows people to criticize and attempt to dictate how others are experiencing and processing loss. Respect, support, and willingness to journey alongside those who are grieving are the appropriate responses to others’ grief, no matter the arena.

There was a lot of this when Amy Winehouse died, too. Because she had drug problems, people weren’t supposed to care. She was “just” a junkie, after all, who didn’t see this coming? People were supposed to ignore her death because it happened shortly after that attack in Norway. Because we can’t feel for more than one tragedy at a time.

Exactly what you said. People will feel grief when a celebrity dies, even if they never met them, because they are involved in things that shape our own lives. Jobs invented devices many of us use — I’m typing this comment on a Macbook with my iPhone sitting next to me. Amy Winehouse released music that touched a lot of people. I was never really a big fan (she’s talented, it’s just not my style), but I can think of a handful of artists that I do have that sort of connection with, most of whom I’ve never met, and I would definitely grieve if any of them died suddenly.

You just can’t tell people how to feel.

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