Public Mourning, Private Grief

Prince memorialThe recent death of pop icon Prince was greeted with the usual outpouring of shock and grief, along with a fair amount of snark. The negative commentary was directed not at the dead musician, but at the people who expressed profound sadness. The naysayers criticized both the misdirection of the emotion (why aren’t you crying over the deaths of innocent refugee children?) and the shallowness of the feelings expressed. “Crying over Prince’s death?” one person wrote. “Really? You people care more about the death of a pampered rock star or an old dog than you do about a starving family in Africa.”

Harsh—and not necessarily true.

statue of griefThe thing is, on my social media and news feeds there are plenty of laments about social conditions around the world, along with a few—too few—suggestions for action that might help those who are suffering. The history of human cruelty is long and ugly. My sorrow about this is systemic; I feel it in my bones. Even on my most hopeful days, I fear manmade brutality may be a permanent condition.

That’s separate from the jolt inspired by the death of a public figure. Which is to say, you can grieve deeply for someone you didn’t know. It even makes sense.

I’m old enough to remember the death of John F. Kennedy. I hurt for weeks. My sorrow linked to my fear. I worried about everything from nuclear annihilation to the idea that someone my father’s age could die so suddenly and senselessly.

Nearly forty years later, my husband died on 9/11. I was so wrapped up in the immediacy of my pain that I couldn’t understand or welcome others who wanted to participate in my bereavement. Some of my anger involved the public spectacle that accompanied the deaths: the endless displays, the incongruity of Teddy bears, the presumption of some of the would-be mourners, the relentless pursuit of “human interest” stories by members of the media.

Now every tragedy, from mass shootings to traffic deaths, seems to call for temporary memorials. It can get wearying.

NOLA funeralBehind the pageantry, though, is a ritual as old as humankind. We mourn publicly and collectively because death is a lonely process. It terrifies us, especially when it’s unanticipated or takes someone young. We reach out for emotional support.  We commiserate to connect. We shake our fist at Death from the safety of a group.

Westerners may watch state funerals for Middle East dignitaries and react with horror to the public hysteria. Diana’s death unleashed a spectacle of communal lamentation that caught many by surprise and continues to this day. It can also come across as senseless. All of us have stories of friends or relatives who couldn’t cry at the funerals of their husbands or fathers—then when a certain movie star died, they couldn’t stop crying.

public mourningTry as we might, we can’t compel others to grieve as we would. My personal preference is to grieve hard but in private. Some people may throw themselves in the dirt at graveside. Some spend years draped in sadness. Some jump back into the business of living more quickly or more slowly than others believe is warranted.

Grieve in peace, or as loudly as you must. There is no single way to mourn.

About Nikki

Author of non-fiction books HOPE IN SMALL DOSES and BECAUSE I SAY SO as well as numerous published essays. Now working on a mystery series.
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8 Responses to Public Mourning, Private Grief

  1. Maura says:

    As usual, a very thoughtful and compassionate piece. Since 2014, I have lost many loved ones – through suicide, ovarian cancer, Alzheimer’s, congestive heart failure, and alcoholism. I still have not cried enough,and honestly wish I could. Despite so much loss, I am deeply saddened by Prince’s death because I felt he made a significant contribution to our “community” in many ways – not just as an extraordinarily talented artist, but also because of his extensive acts of charity (that remained a secret until after he died), and I also deeply appreciate how much he promoted other female artists. I love seeing all the tributes to him – from Bruce Springsteen to the cast of “The Color Purple”. “Art elevates us all”.

  2. A Abbott says:

    Beautiful and profound. It disturbs me that people rush to judge on EVERY NEWS story. Remember how quickly everything jumped into place after Scalia’s death. I cannot imagine experiencing a private grief in a public spectacle. Last week our neighbor and the father of our son’s best friend died unexpectedly of a heart attack. It wasn’t our loss so much as a loss to his son, whom we love, and our son, who loved the man who passed. It was strange to watch this family go through what they did as the nation mourned Prince. I understand how it works on a global level, but it was somewhat disconcerting. Again, you have made me think.

  3. David McClain says:

    Amen, my friend. I have learned over the past months that grief has many faces and forms, almost as many as there are people who grieve. Though personally I can not understand feeling profound grief for someone I never knew, I don’t condemn those who do. It is their way and, as you said, there is no single right way.

  4. Steve Gorelick says:

    My first thought: what grounded, deeply thoughtful wisdom

    My second thought: the road you had to take to arrive there

    And finally: where did I think wisdom came from anyway?

  5. Lezlie Bishop says:

    The rush to judgment by people about just about everything makes me nuts. Prince’s death announcement wasn’t 30 minutes old before the drug rumors began. Those who resent celebrities for their wealth and apparent privilege can’t wait to waggle their fingers or even laugh in dismissal. The other extreme seems to be to glorify the dead person beyond all reason.

    People question the sincerity of mourners, as if it can be known what is in the mind of anyone else. Judgment, judgment, judgment. It never ends.

    I realized the uniqueness of grief and mourning when my grandfather died. His was the first death of a close relative I had experienced. He was the center of my universe, but we knew he was dying for 30 days before he did. After all the services were over, through which I cried quietly the entire time, we went to a relatives home for food and rest. Tears rolled down my face uncontrollable, but with no shudders, no sobs, no sound at all. I couldn’t stop it and it went on for what seemed like hours. Crying in public is not my style. Being able to regain my composure is something I pride myself on . But this taught me that true grief has no rules.

  6. anne says:

    Bravo – Prince has been there for me for decades. It was only appropriate that I should be there for him. When I heard his music, it salved my soul. I didn’t need to know him personally for the impact of his death to be felt in a real way. And it didn’t help at all that he died within days of my losing a dear friend.

    Actors and musicians calm us, they entertain us, they keep us going when we are certain we couldn’t go on. Not unlike close friends or family members.

    Love you! xoxo

  7. Boanerges says:

    The only person whose death I fear is Red’s. How I would deal with that, I simply do not know, but for sure it would be private.

    About celebs of whatever stripe, I generally don’t care beyond an initial “Say what?” reaction. This year has been particularly full of that, starting with David Bowie, but I can’t say I’m overly depressed by any of them.

    I suppose, if I’m being brutally honest, I was truly shaken by the death of Harry Chapin 30-something years ago, but really … not since, not even my parents.

  8. Colby Halloran says:

    Well done Nikki. I am continually reminded that even one person can grieve, throughout a lifetime in so many varied ways. One constant: grief evolves. Xo

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