The way people mourn online has been the subject of much cultural comment recently, particularly in the wake of mass tragedies and high-profile celebrity deaths, such as those of David Bowie and Prince. Some argue that the likes of Facebook and Twitter have opened up public space for displays of grief that had been restricted to private spheres of secular culture. But rather than reconstructing an outlet for public grief, social media often reproduces the worst cultural failings surrounding death, namely platitudes that help those on the periphery of a tragedy rationalize what has happened, but obscure the uncomfortable, messy reality of loss.
Social media has increased the speed and ease of communication to an unprecedented degree, and yet sites like Facebook and Twitter are poorly suited to grief’s strangeness. By design, social media demands tidy conclusions, and dilutes tragedy so that it’s comprehensible even to those only distantly aware of what has happened. The majority of Facebook posts mourning Lauren’s death were full of “silver linings” comments that were so far removed from the horror of the reality that I found them isolating and offensive. Implicit in claims that Lauren was no longer suffering, or that “everything happens for a reason” are redemptive clauses—ones that have a silencing effect on those who find no value in their pain.
It makes sense that those who knew Lauren sought some kind of meaning in her death in an attempt to re-order a universe disrupted. My sister was a smart, kind, athletic business student and a social entrepreneur—and she had an incredibly rare form of brain cancer that ended up killing her. It’s naively assumed that good, healthy people deserve good, healthy lives. When they’re robbed of what cosmic justice is owed to them, the laws that many believe govern human lives become suddenly suspect, or are revealed as illusory.
So if the impulse to ascribe meaning to senseless tragedy can be misguided, it’s also deeply human. The notion that suffering brings meaning and growth is common to many religious traditions, and lies at the heart of countless great stories. Scholars of tragedy and horror fiction have long argued that people seek out symbolic encounters with death as a way to confront their own mortality, albeit from a safe distance. From this vantage point, suffering and death take on an aesthetic quality that’s all but invisible to those enduring grief.
In her 2003 book, Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag described how civilians respond to pictures of wartime dead, writing, “We truly can’t imagine what it is like.” Anyone who’s spent time under fire, she says, knows this intuitively. Those who’ve experienced the final weeks of a loved one’s life need no reminder of the loneliness of that time. The novelist Aleksandar Hemon compared the sense of separateness he felt when caring for his daughter, who was dying of a brain tumor, to living inside an aquarium. Those on the outside could see in, to a degree, but those inside the glass led a completely alien existence.