Enter the Grief Police

The Internet is allowing a return to age-old, communal forms of mourning. That makes some people uncomfortable.

Thomas Timlen / Flickr

The first World War transformed, along with so much else, the way people mourn. The British anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer argues that the death of so many people in such a small span of time overwhelmed those they left behind, and rendered them unable to undergo the rituals that had previously been in place for grieving. Combined with the rise of psychoanalysis and its emphasis on the interiority of the individual—Freud’s Mourning and Melancholia presented grief as a highly personal phenomenon—the social practice of mourning was transformed in the early 20th century, to the extent that, by the 1960s, Gorer was describing grief as something to be kept “under complete control by strength of will and character, so that it need be given no public expression.”

Today, that tradition continues. Grief, in the popular imagination, is a sadness to be experienced and carried and borne as silently and as stoically as possible. And yet mourning, too, has a public face: condolences, wakes, the sharing of memories and sympathies. That juxtaposition leaves many confused about how to celebrate the dead, how to comfort the living—how, in short, to grieve together. “Rituals used to help the community by giving everyone a sense of what to do or say,” Meghan O’Rourke puts it in her magisterial memoir The Long Goodbye. “Now, we’re at sea.”

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.

So, too, were the many, many people who expressed their grief about the passing of Bowie. Posting videos, sharing favorite songs, telling the world about first Bowie concerts and first Bowie albums, about what Bowie meant and will continue to mean—this was not, overall, “crocodile tears.” It was evidence of people doing what they always will: using the tools available to express themselves and share their feelings with other people. They were forming a community of grief. #RIPDavidBowie was a hashtag, yes; it was also a funeral.

Which is also to say that the Internet is, in some sense, returning us to the days before war transformed grief into a largely solitary affair. Public mourning—via Twitter, via Facebook, via Tumblr—has become its own kind of ritual.

Grief policing is a corollary to all that: It is people recognizing that human impulses are hardening into social rituals, and then disliking what those rituals represent. It is people assuming the worst of others, rather than the best. Grief policing may be a fitting thing for a culture that has elevated “you’re doing it wrong” to a kind of Hegelian taunt, that treats every social-media-ed expression as a basis for an argument, and that is on top of it all generally extremely confused about how to mourn “properly.” Such policing, however, very much misses the point. The outcry of love and sadness after the news of Bowie’s death—that heavy sense that the world had been permanently dented—was, on top of everything else, evidence of the new way of mourning. Taking to the Internet to share and cry and commiserate is now part of how we cope with a loss. It is what we do. But it is also, just as importantly, what is done.