Public Grief is in the news again with Hurricane Harvey. When we see devastation on TV, it affects us. We may know someone who lived in the area affected by the Hurricane. Even if we don’t, we see people like us losing their homes. We often feel helpless. For most of us, it’s not that we actually knew them, it’s that their lives are just like ours; they have pets, work and homes. Public Grief, although thought of as a new phenomenon, is not. Connecting in loss is a human ritual. From man’s earliest records, people gathered together to share a loss in villages and towns throughout recorded history. In modern times with television, we are able to get to know people we have never met in a way we never thought possible. When so many people are killed in Orlando, Barcelona or now have their lives devastated in Texas, the grief we feel is personal, even though they are not a member of our family or a close friend. They could have been our friend, our family member or our neighbor.
We watch the events unfolding on our TV. With the advent of modern media, this new type of Public Grief became widely experienced with the television coverage of the death and funeral of President John F. Kennedy. Other examples of Public Grief are Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, Orlando Club bombing and the Boston Marathon, deaths of Debbie Reynolds, Carrie Fisher, Whitney Houston, Jett Travolta, Natasha Richardson and Dick Clark, Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson. We have also publicly mourned Princess Dianna, JFK Jr, Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II. It is also experienced with events such as September 11, and the turmoil in the Middle East and and the crashes of Malaysian Airlines and others. Seeing bodies, funerals, coffins or a tragic event replayed on television can be helpful if one is prepared for it and it is done appropriately. If done for shock value or with an agenda it can possibly cause trauma and /or complicate the grieving process.
Sometimes we revisit loss to help us understand what has happened to our loved ones and us. On anniversaries of such events as Haiti earthquake, Hurricane Katrina and September 11 we may watch TV and media coverage to remember, to commemorate, to grieve and to reassure ourselves that an event and our loved ones will never be forgotten. There is also Public Anticipatory Grief, through TV and radio, where we begin to experience grief, collectively, before the actual loss; and, sometimes the loss may not even happen, such as Baby Jessica. We were all very concerned that she would not be able to be rescued and we feared the worst; but, thankfully, she was rescued. This type of grief is normal and many people are surprised at the deepness of emotions that we can feel for public figures that we have never actually met and situations we have never experienced ourselves.What we see on TV is not always what grief looks like when the cameras are not present. Jackie Kennedy chose a public image of the strong widow. That did not mean she did not cry privately. (Also now a new movie). Itunes moves many songs after a the death of Prince or George Michael. Do we value celebrities more after death? Just like in our personal lives, when someone dies, there is more of them to see or expereince. With entertainers there is not more creativity coming out after death. We want their songs. We want a connection to their songs and our lives when we first heard them.
Grief is as individual as a fingerprint and as unique as each one of us is publicly and privately. Mourning is what we do externally. Grief is what we feel inside. The public image of mourning is very different than the private reality of a widow’s grief. The mourning of a President assassinated in his Presidency was very different than the mourning of a President stricken with Alzheimer’s. Betty Ford gave a glimpse of her grief in mourning a President who lived well into old age. Each Presidential memorial usually reflects how a President lived and how he died. If you find yourself having strong feelings of grief for a public figure that you have known – just remember those feelings are normal, natural and perhaps as old as time itself. What you can do is find ways to externalize your grief in the form of mourning. Here are some things that you may do:
1. If your feelings are very strong and there is a public memorial service or gathering – attend it or watch it.
2. Send a card with a short note to their loved-one. Celebrities and their relatives often have social media you can post on.
3. Talk with other people about it who are also moved by the loss.
4. Give to a charity in their name, Red Cross etc. Remember what the people who died did and what they stood for, causes charities etc.
5. Connect to them. Rent a movie or listen/download a song of theirs.
6. Light a candle in their honor.
7. Post a favorite memory of them.
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