Sunday, 24 July 2011
The Grief Compass
Plenty of people died this weekend, and the social networks were alight. There were two instant Twitter reactions to Winehouse’s passing, as there are when any celebrity dies. Firstly, a barrage of people expressed sadness at the news, about the “waste” of her dying young. This was immediately countered with posters rolling their virtual eyes at the canonisation of celebrities when they die before their time.
Circumstance threw in a third contingent. Winehouse died the day after Anders Behring Breivik murdered some 90 people in Norway, causing many to question the sense of “perspective” in finding sadness at a junkie singer shuffling off her coil.
This raises the question: can we grieve multiple instances of death simultaneously, or should we be checking with some sort of grief compass before we run to our peers to express our oh-so-important personal opinion on which death matters most?
We feel sad about these incidents for different reasons. A great many people were shocked by Winehouse’s death because she affected them on a personal level with her music, and because you could, if you’d chosen to, have indulged yourself in personal detail about her troubles with addiction through the press. This is “celebrity death syndrome”: it’s the result of media-soaking, which generates a feeling of familiarity with famous strangers and creates a natural sense of sorrow when they die. Extreme examples of it are the deaths of Diana Spencer and Jade Goody.
The Norway killings were stunning in another way. We probably don’t know the people that died in the attacks, but the “bomb in a peaceful, western city” scenario will always be shocking for those that live in peaceful, western cities, and the unfolding reality of the island shooting spree provoked real feelings of grief as those removed from the incident struggled to comprehend it. Young, innocent people gunned down on a tiny island by a right wing lunatic: we can imagine being there. And we can imagine our children being there. It’s horrific in a real sense, as were the Twin Towers attacks: the Sun even headlined it as “Norway’s 9/11”.
Assuming, as we were told many times on Twitter last night, that we have to pick and choose, which story is best deserved of our sympathy? Before we can answer that, we logically have to take a look at this weekend’s other deaths to ensure we haven’t got our compass ultimately pointing in the wrong direction. It’s important to know which way is dead north.
It’s easy to find out. Go to Google News and search for “dead”.
When I looked, Winehouse was top. Second was a BBC story about a Scottish teenager that died as a passenger in a Ford Fiesta this morning. There's not much detail. The driver hit some parked cars. This is a guy you don't know dying in a car crash: how do you feel about it?
Third was Norway. Fourth, there was this from the Telegraph: “Two Chinese bullet trains have collided, causing two carriages to fall 60ft from an elevated line and killing at least 33 passengers in the first major accident on the country's high-speed rail network.”
That sounds fairly terrible. That has to be up there with Norway, right? Lots of innocent dead people. It's an accident as opposed to shooting, but there's a large-scale sense of loss. Where does it fit in the weekend dead league?
One more for luck. The next story involving deaths this weekend - as opposed to "dead ducks" or The Walking Dead - was about a man opening fire at a North Texas roller rink last night, killing five people and wounding four others before shooting himself.
That's a contender. Guns, murder, a family celebration gone wrong: it's got it all. That might even be a Winehouse-beater.
Having fun? Now consider this: 6 million children starve to death every year. To any right-minded individual, that's a baffling statistic.
In the 48 hours since the atrocities in Norway on Friday, 33,000 children have died through malnutrition. This is what had me staring at the ceiling last night. Can you imagine what it means to watch your child starve?
Even if you can't, I'm fairly sure you can try. You don't have to know those children, or a teenager killed in an early morning car accident, to feel pain over them. There's a scene at the end of my story The Chair - which details the murder of a woman - in which the victim's parents are waiting for her to arrive in a restaurant. This is supposed to show that, however faceless the woman was to the killer, someone will be ruined by her death. The same is true for virtually all deaths.
There is no "grief compass". You don't have to choose how to feel. People only react to the deaths they see in the news because they're deaths they see in the news, and it's likely most people are happy to remain ignorant of the true scale of global mortality because they're genuine, heartfelt individuals that, deep down, want to shield themselves from grief. There's a world of death surrounding you if want to see it: maybe you just don't.
That's up to you. But I'm certain if someone tells you you're not allowed to feel sorrow when someone dies just because someone else has died, you can tell that person otherwise.