Monday, July 25, 2011

The awful calculus of grief

On Friday, there was a terrorist attack in Norway. The official death toll has been revised downwards as I write this, but the authorities are still searching for victims, so I am not going to list numbers. Needless to say, even one would have been too many.

I remember watching as the news hit the internet - as the number of dead went higher and higher, as the news came in that the majority of the victims were children, as people posted and reposted pleas for donated blood and unlocked data networks. It was awful, and numbing in its awfulness. We are not, I do not think, equipped to process tragedy on such a scale. People mourned, and expressed solidarity, did the best they could to connect and comfort.

Then on Saturday, a different tragedy. The singer, Amy Winehouse, found dead. She was only 27, but had been known for her struggles with addiction almost as much as for her astounding talent, and so the tragedy was seasoned with the feeling of inevitability. We had known this was coming, even though we hoped it wouldn't. Again, people mourned.

Most people. The internet being the internet, people began behaving like asses. The milder expressed sorrow that the death of a troubled pop star received more attention than the deaths of those lost to terror only the day before. Perhaps they were only chastising the media, and not the mourners. But there were others who said that Winehouse's death was earned, was something she deserved, and so shouldn't be mourned. Who said the people grieving the loss of a talent were doing something wrong by not also - or instead - grieving people who had no choice in their death, who did not deserve to die. There were people who said they were proud that they refused to grieve for a woman's death.

I do not understand this.

I do not understand those who feel proud to say that a death has no meaning, and who would judge the grief of those to whom that loss matters. I do not understand those who would say that only one sorrow at a time is worthy of notice, who seem to feel equipped to weigh and measure grief, to put it on a scale and a timer. Who would seem to suggest that grief over death can somehow be divided by whether or not that death was deserved, and have already set up their scales of judgment. Who fail to understand that sorrow and mourning are complex, and nuanced, and are not an on/off switch. I do not understand them, and they break my heart.


  1. Well put. Very well put. I watched the same reactions and was surprised. It's the lack of compassion that bothered me the most. It was as if some people are/were missing a component that allowed them to see grief as it is -- a spectrum.

    Wonderfully written post.

  2. A very eloquent post. The problem with the Internet is the ease of access to an instant audience (Facebook friends, Tweeples, etc...) and negative comments and views circulate more than the positive ones.

    Grief is not an imposed state and sometimes it is not always the initial and default reaction to tragic events.