One recent consequence of that collective drifting, especially as the confusion expands to digital platforms, is the rise of grief policing. The notion that there is but one way to grieve, and that deviation from that way is wrong. The tendency to tell mourners that, essentially, they’re mourning too much, or not enough. The desire to restore order to a practice that has become, culturally, chaotic.
Grief policing was on display recently, during the aftermath of David Bowie’s death. Camilla Long, the film critic for The Sunday Times, witnessed the outpouring of emotion posted online as people learned, and tried to make sense, of Bowie’s passing. She did not like the way they mourned. Their grieving, she suggested—or, well, “grieving”—was self-indulgent, and, like so much else on social media, purely performative. “Bowie Blubberers,” she called the grievers.
The outcry against these sentiments—the backlash-against-the-backlash, as it were—has been, unsurprisingly, swift and fierce. “Journalist tells grieving Bowie fans to ‘man the f*** up’ and gets taken down big time,” Metro U.K. noted. The Pool’s Sali Hughes scoffed at “the usual grief ombudsman, waiting in the wings with clipboards, ready to pass the feelings of others through rigorous quality control, before noisily finding it lacking.”
But usual is apt. Grief-policing, though social media have made it more prominent and more public, has a long history. Pundits of the time made similar criticisms, after all, about Princess Diana’s mourners, accusing them of crying “crocodile tears.” Yet as online communications have given the public new outlets for grieving, they’ve also given critics more fodder for their criticism. “For a generation known for broadcasting internal monologue across the Internet,” The New York Times put it in 2014, “some of its members seem eager for spaces to express not just the good stuff that litters everyone’s Facebook newsfeed, but also the painful.” Mourning has become, as it were, #content.
And that means that mourning has, in the process, become fodder for analysis—and argument. For objection. The online outpouring of grief after Robin Williams’s death, Politico argued, “makes death feel cheap.” Even the great Zadie Smith, novelist and essayist and humanist, proved, a few years ago, to have little patience for the ad-hoc rituals of Internet-assisted mourning:
I’ve noticed—and been ashamed of noticing—that when a teenager is murdered, at least in Britain, her Facebook wall will often fill with messages that seem to not quite comprehend the gravity of what has occurred. You know the type of thing: Sorry babes! Missin’ you!!! Hopin’ u iz with the Angles. I remember the jokes we used to have LOL! PEACE XXXXX
When I read something like that, I have a little argument with myself: “It’s only poor education. They feel the same way as anyone would, they just don’t have the language to express it.” But another part of me has a darker, more frightening thought. Do they genuinely believe, because the girl’s wall is still up, that she is still, in some sense, alive? What’s the difference, after all, if all your contact was virtual?
What Smith’s “frightening thought” underestimates, though, is the extent to which mourning is, on top of everything else—apologies to Freud, and especially to Gorer—in fact a deeply communal concern. “I remember the jokes we used to have LOL! ,” posted on a Facebook wall, isn’t merely a declaration of a memory of the deceased; it’s a declaration of support to the deceased’s family and friends. It’s a condolence card. The author of this sentiment was, in essence, attending a virtual wake.