Just as there are stages of grief, it is increasingly apparent that there are stages of online mourning that define the way people publicly react to the deaths of celebrities and public figures: first we want confirmation of the facts, next we want to spread them, then we’re shocked and sympathetic, and then alternately crass or indignant about others’ crassness before finally, inevitably, and quickly, we move on to some other subject.
Over the past week or so, two notable deaths confirmed this: the untimely death of Fast & Furious actor Paul Walker and the long-expected passing of Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first democratically elected president and one of the world’s most celebrated freedom fighters. Both instances yielded massive outpourings of social media-based mourning, the likes of which we’ve become accustomed to but still have a hard time parsing.
Social media’s inclination towards narcissism normalizes the notion that grief (or any emotion at all) must be public.
Timelines, newsfeeds and homepages were clogged with photos, platitudes, and personal expressions of grief ranging from the mundane to the thoughtful. But, almost as quickly as the deluge began, it was over; it would appear that even death is subject to the fast-paced news cycle of collective consciousness.
Nowadays celebrity deaths are treated in much the same way as awards shows and basketball games, in part because there is a pressure to participate with a livetweet here, an overwrought photoshopped image there. The resulting assumption is patently unfair: if you have not tweeted about Nelson Mandela, or changed your Facebook cover photo to an iconic image of his beaming face, then you must not have any feelings about his life or legacy. As if.
On one hand, mourning has historically been a social, community-based process wherein a script, however disingenuous, is meant to be followed: you make phone calls, you say nice things about the deceased, you share memories about the life they lived. In some ways, that’s not very different from posting your favorite Paul Walker scene on Tumblr; it can be read as simply an online equivalent of ancient rituals.
On the other hand, however, social media’s inclination towards narcissism normalizes the notion that grief (or any emotion at all) must be public, that to mourn privately is not to mourn at all, and that it is as much about the individual mourning as the person being mourned. But who or what gets to dictate the appropriate form or length of time grief must take? We’ve become accustomed to the false emotionalism that comes with condensing complex human sentiment to 140 characters, but at what point will we begin to accept that there are as many ways to grieve as there are Twitter handles?