Top Of The Mourning: Why Grief Isn’t A Contest

(Dionne Warwick – What The World Needs Now)

This week the world has had been rocked by wave upon wave of tragedy: parts of Somalia were declared to be in famine, an allegedly fundamentalist Christian bombed Oslo and shot 84 people dead at a youth camp in Norway, dozens of people died in China after two trains collided, and – yes, I’m going to put it in the same sentence for the sake of this blog – Amy Winehouse was found dead at her home, aged just 27, after losing her battle with drink and drugs.

All of these tragedies have been at the top of the headlines, with heads of state pledging help and support to the nations affected, and of course they have provoked widespread messages of shock and condolence on Twitter and Facebook. One of the reasons I love Social Networking so much is because you see so much humanity during the darkest hours: it is the united voice of these mediums that helped a little girl get her bucket list fulfilled a few weeks ago, and it was the united voice of these mediums that at least helped ensure the phone-hacking scandal has sparked some (hopefully) big changes to British Journalism. People reach out on Twitter and Facebook, do what they can, and if they can do nothing, they at least are a place for people to share messages of comfort and grief. That’s no bad thing, right?

Wrong. Apparently. Because, while the combined mourning of Norway, Somalia and China was of course permitted without question, as soon as Amy Winehouse’s death was announced Twitter and Facebook became a tasteless outlet for self-righteousness, ignorance and cynicism for anyone that didn’t care much for her, who then felt it was alright to judge and in some cases mock those who chose to voice their sadness at Amy’s passing.

In short, these people are idiots. But for clarity’s sake I’ll post their main beef with freedom of speech below:

  • “Forget Amy Winehouse – over 90 people just died in Oslo!”

Yes. We know. We can think of little else at the moment, and the horror of what that one disturbed individual committed is so vast I don’t think many people really know how to voice their sadness. We certainly can’t explain it, and most of us can’t even articulate condolences that even begin to cover the atrocity of what happened on Friday, and yet it was top of Twitter’s ‘trending topics’ for 24 hours after the attacks, so the suggestion that people weren’t talking about it as much as Amy Winehouse is fairly redundant anyway.

To suggest that people shouldn’t also mourn the death of Amy Winehouse in addition to the Norway massacre doesn’t even begin to make sense. There are still people fighting for their lives in Norway – if, heaven forbid, one of them doesn’t make it, bringing the death toll up by yet another life, and everyone tweeted condolences for them, would everyone rant about that, as if it somehow disregards all the previous murders that were committed on Friday? I’m pretty sure that’s a no. So why do the same when people take the time to pay their respects to Amy Winehouse?

It doesn’t mean those people have magically forgotten Norway, as @Rhodria pointed out:

I really fail to see how making this – in the words of @GarethAveyard – a “misery based pissing contest” is in any way helpful, or in any way comforts those still mourning what happened in Norway or any of the other global tragedies that occurred this week.

As to why, on Facebook at least, ‘RIP’ messages for Amy were so widespread in comparison to messages for those in Norway – that’s very simple. Facebook statuses are a very personal thing. People felt they had a personal connection to Amy through her music. Add this to the fact that people probably feel more qualified to remark upon Amy’s passing than they do to remark on the inexplicable massacre in Norway, and it’s not surprising. It doesn’t mean people care less.

  • “She deserved it – she was a junkie. Why should we care?”

Tell that to all the friends and relatives of anyone that’s ever died from their addiction. No really, do, because they’ll punch you in the face and quite frankly that’s just what you deserve.

To start with, yes, taking drugs is voluntary , but after that your body changes and you become physically dependent on them. As author and lifelong addict Hunter S Thompson describes it:

 “It makes you behave like the village drunkard in some early Irish novel… total loss of all basic motor skills: blurred vision, no balance, numb tongue- severance of all connection between the body and the brain. Which is interesting because you can actually watch yourself behaving in this terrible way, but you can’t control it.”
Even if you do manage to beat the addiction (something which takes amazing personal strength – not something Amy had a lot of judging by accounts of people who knew her), you’re never really clean. Irvine Welsh, author of Trainspotting, describes this:
It was a stupidity and a weakness. I’ve not touched it for years, but it’s in your vocabulary. If something bad happens in your life, it’s always there in the background, waiting for you to trip up.
(Both quotations taken from here.)

Besides all of this, anyone that thinks a junkie deserves to die forgets that they are in fact talking not about a label or a statistic, but a human being. One with a family, friends, and in this case millions of fans, all of whom do not want to see their loved one die. How anyone can think it’s alright to mock or openly deride people who are sad about someone’s death is beyond me, irrespective of the circumstances.

The people who make the remarks I mentioned above entirely miss the point of… well, just about everything. They are ignorant of so many things: the nature of addiction, the nature of grief, and the nature of social media, among other things. They also seem to miss the entire concept of mourning:

a. It’s personal, so telling people who they should and shouldn’t mourn for is pointless.
b. It’s not all-consuming, and so you are capable of being really sad about more than one thing concurrently without having to list out everything you’re sad about just to prove you haven’t forgotten anything important.
And on the most basic level c. It’s SAD, so DON’T use it as an opportunity to spit ill-conceived bile at people you supposedly care about when they’re actually feeling pretty unhappy about someone dying.

The world is a sad enough place at the moment. So before people continue with this bizarre grief-snobbery, it would be really nice if they could ask themselves “By saying this, who am I actually helping?”
My thoughts and prayers are with everyone affected by the terrible events of the last few days.

4 thoughts on “Top Of The Mourning: Why Grief Isn’t A Contest

  1. Hello. I stumbled across your post on Amy Winehouse as I actually wrote one myself. I loved it and wanted to leave my congrats on such an amazing piece of writing. I will be linking to your blog and keeping an eye out for more gems like this. Thankyou for making me smile 🙂

  2. That’s an interesting post.

    The assorted social media do, I agree, bring out the best and the worst of us. However, I draw a different conclusion as to their, for want of a better word, ‘helpfulness’. I’m sure I speak with as much faith in humanity as you when I say that the best of us would be prompted to comment without the aid of Twitter or Facebook. The best of us would feel grief and sadness and bewilderment at recent events, regardless of whether those emotions would ever become public. In contrast, the worst of us, for whom those feelings are unfamiliar and confounding, are merely lent a voice (and an audience) to espouse their own particular brand of “grief-snobbery”.

    Mourning is not a private experience. For a start, people are expected to mourn. A public expectation of outward expression is not private, in any sense of any of those words. There is mourning clothing; there are standards of mourning in almost every culture. It is a deeply social experience. To define the “concept of mourning” as private is to misunderstand fundamentally the meaning of the word, and also to undermine the coherence of your argument.

    Grief, like any other emotion, is entirely private; one’s comprehension and command of it exists only in one’s head. To equate the two concepts is the undoing of your undoubtedly heartfelt and well-meaning post.

    Which is to say this: people can be sad over more than one thing at once. I am, frequently. Sometimes, the sheer numerical supremacy of things that I’m sad about over things I’m happy about leads only, it seems, to despair. But that’s not the point. The point is that you can be sad without saying so.

    Everyone should be able to say anything to the world; anyone should be able to say everything to the world. But if you’re going to spend eleven-hundred words decrying people’s snobbery and callousness, you cannot expect anything less from those who disagree with you.

    The best of us are sad about Norway, and about Darfur, and about Sub-Saharan Africa, and about Amy Winehouse. The very best of us are sad about places you and I have never even heard of.

    The best of us will be heard.

    The cost? So will everyone else.

    Ultimately, my problem with your post comes down to your last paragraph. To repeat your own question, who are you actually helping? How close were you to the families of those killed in Norway; or Ms Winehouse’s family? Or the unheard masses from around the globe to which I’ve no doubt your prayers are also directed?

    Don’t expect reverence from anything you blog or tweet or face (is “face” a verb yet?). Post your feelings to the world and you expose yourself to everyone else’s.

    [Also, man, I hate to bring this up after all the above, but – mediums? As in, “these mediums”? Come on! The plural of medium is media; that’s why the media are called the media; that’s why it’s “social media” and not “social mediums”.]

    • Hi Toby,

      Wow, I’m really honoured you’ve taken so much time to write such a long reply.

      I appreciate your sentiments regarding the difference between grief and mourning, but I suppose my blog used the terms interchangeably when that’s not an entirely accurate thing to do. The post was mostly about people deciding to announce what we should or shouldn’t voice sadness about at a time when there is so much to be sad about, which I think is an unnecessary and unkind thing to do. I think your response looks at the concept of grief and mourning a lot more deeply than I ever intended to, but you make some valid and thought-provoking points.

      I’m interested by your question of who I think *I* am helping – I don’t think I ever claimed to be helping anyone, but I suppose when everyone tweets their condolences it can bring some comfort to know that other people feel similar pain – a bit like mass displays of flowers at certain relevant sites after a death or tragedy, for instance at Amy’s house. But that’s a pretty broad claim for a mere tweet I know – I suppose my point is that these tweets don’t harm anyone, but the self-righteous tweets of others telling people what they should tweet about do an awful lot more harm than good. I just think they cause more sadness or anger when there is enough already, and this is totally avoidable simply by showing a little respect.

      I certainly don’t expect reverence from anything I blog/tweet/facebook (most people I know tend to use ‘facebook’ as a verb, by the way!) but I respect other people’s public displays of grief and would like that to be reciprocated. If I dislike the subject of someone else’s mourning, I’d prefer to remain silent and not offend them rather than make a bad situation worse by lumping my opinion on them at a time when it is not needed.

      You’ve made me think about this on so many more levels now, and for that I can only thank you! And you are also owed thanks – of course – for pointing out my cringeworthy ‘mediums’ gaff. That’ll learn me for writing a blog post on a Sunday night after a few gins…!



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