Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Why We Mourn Princess Leia (and Prince)

Amid all of the expressions of grief and loss on Facebook and Twitter over Carrie Fisher (and Princess Leia) and George Michael and Prince and David Bowie and all of the others who have passed away this year, I’ve noticed the occasional comment or complaint about the emotion and energy that so many of us put into openly mourning the loss of prominent public figures, sports icons, entertainers and even the characters they play. I admit that I’ve wondered about this myself, even as I’ve cried and felt their loss in my heart. I mean, we don’t know these individuals. Why do we express such sadness about their deaths? In many cases, they’ve lived full and privileged lives. Why would we feel and express such heartache over them as opposed to, say, the children being killed every day in Syria and other war-torn areas of the world? I’m no psychologist, but I have a 3-part theory on this. Take it or leave it:

It’s Something We can Wrap our Heads Around
It’s often said that as humans, we have a difficult time wrapping our heads and hearts around the loss of the many, especially the many whom we are powerless to help. When we think about the deaths of millions of people during the Holocaust, to use the most devastating example I can think of, we feel horror and terror and sadness, but it’s a broad sadness. It’s such an immense tragedy that our hearts protect us. Can you imagine how incapacitated we would be if we felt keenly the death of each person lost? The grief would be overwhelming.

The same thing happens to us with the loss of the many – men, women and children – in today’s war zones. We feel rage and horror and grief about their pain and death… and it’s a broad anger. It’s a broad type of mourning. Now instead, think about the small boy sitting alone in the ambulance after his home was bombed to rubble. Think about the man walking down the street carrying his dead child in his arms. Think about the woman grieving and aching at the hospital because she has just lost all of her children in an air raid. Think about the little boy who drowned when his refugee boat sank. You can feel their loss keenly. You can feel sharp anger and grief about their circumstances. We are built to relate to other individuals. It’s not a moral challenge or a character issue. It’s just the way our minds work.

It’s Safe
If you have lost someone very close to you, then you know that openly, publicly grieving is the last thing on your mind when that person first passes away. It’s one thing to speak at a funeral or to write an obituary, because those are proscribed tasks, things we are expected to do, checklist items that are anticipated and that have a purpose and for which we follow an expected format (for the most part). These are not open, emotion-driven expressions of grief. Quite the opposite. They are things we do that are expected of us and that almost help us wade through the shock and deep grief by giving us a safe outlet and a task list to follow… almost like a lifeline we climb, rung by rung, to pull us along through those initial, molasses-like minutes and hours and days.

If you’ve lost someone very close to you, you know that your true mourning is primarily internal, at least for a while, and that the last thing on your mind – usually – is to openly grieve on Facebook. Not deeply. Not fully. In pieces and in short statements, sure, but not fully and openly. Not for a while, at least.

Ironically, our open sadness and expressions of heartache over these icons actually reinforces (I believe) that while they mean a lot to us, they are not the people we love most. It’s our ability to shout out to the world how sad we are that subtly also shows that our love is one that comes from a distance.

It’s the Loss not just of the Person but of their Impact
I believe that we also mourn these icons so deeply because of what they represent to us – the laughter and entertainment they brought us, the example and strength we learned from a character they portrayed or from the individuals themselves, the music and emotion that was the soundtrack and heartbeat to a significant time in our lives. When these artists and entertainers and figures depart, it feels like they take a part of our lives with them, like that part of us and those memories darken and die a little when these icons die. In some cases, we grieve because these individuals used their fame and prominence to make a positive difference – by sharing their own stories and struggles, by fighting for others, and by giving back to the world through good deeds and donations and adding positive energy to the Universe – and the world feels like it will be a gloomier and less giving place without them in it.

All of this being said, I hope that we all can allow each other our grief and our sadness. We’re all individuals, and we all feel things differently. If someone you know mourns the loss of an individual they didn’t know personally, why judge him or her? If a person feels safer openly grieving for a star versus openly grieving for a close loved one, then at least that individual has a positive outlet for their sadness. If we are only human and can more readily process and express anguish over an individual because the pain of the death of thousands of individuals is too great for our minds to allow us to comprehend fully, then let us grief for the individual as a proxy and know that this doesn’t mean we don’t feel deeply for the many who also are dying, often under far more terrible circumstances.

Let people grieve. Let people mourn. And be happy that they - that we - have the capacity to grieve and ache and want better for the world.
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