The Science of Mourning

The culture of mourning surrounding the death of public figures, such as artists, actors and politicians is not unknown to us. Recently, the well-loved figures of artist and singer David Bowie, and actor Alan Rickman died.

Condolences, from politicians and civilians, on social media - Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram - television networks and radio broadcasts poured in from around the world. This was not uncommon. World leaders issued messages of sorrow and condolences after the assassination of John F Kennedy, an air of mournful respect is strictly adhered to at Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum in Hanoi, the ‘RIP MJ’ shirts after the death of Michael Jackson were worn by many and the uninterrupted news of a celebrity’s death, along with memorial services held and broadcast on television for the public was common place. Shared and public mourning has never been more ordinary. Expressing grief after someone’s death, in human psychology terms, is normal. It can differ culturally, individually, but simply, it is a way of expressing the grief over the death of a friend, a family member, someone a part of your life, who is no longer a part of it anymore. This is important to point out: mourning usually took into account the death of someone you knew personally, and lost. How then, has mourning become such a publicly shared event, involving grief over the death of one that many have not met (such as public figures and celebrities)?

An event that may illuminate the purpose of ‘disenfranchised grief’ is in the ‘mass hysteria’ of Princess Diana’s death in 1997, after a car crash in Paris. The media exploded in proliferations of sadness, rage; a ‘forced mourning’ seen in a larger and grander scale than ever witnessed before. Newspapers, television and radio networks created a ‘unified’ and tragic narrative of Diana’s death, capitalising on her appeal as a ‘Princess of the People’ and ‘murdered’ by the paparazzi who had chased her. In this way, they were supposed to reflect the reactions of the people, one which was presumed to be as despondent and ‘hysterical’ as the press made it out to be. Yet, studies have shown that variously different reactions by the public to Princess Diana’s death was initially buried ‘under a large monolith called GRIEF’ (Jack, 1997: 17; McGuigan, 2000; Thomas, 2002; Turnock, 2000). Opinion polls showed that at least 75 percent of people did not participate in the public mourning by placing flowers or signing books of condolences, and nearly 50 percent of the population did not watch the funeral (Thomas, 2002).

The disparity between the public and private reaction is psychological. People conform to the social norm, in fear of being rejected with an unpopular opinion. This is especially as the media has the role of presenting an ‘imagined community,’ one in which mass grieving can ‘strengthen’ the bonds of a nation. This is why it is called a ‘forced mourning,’ the media forces, in its scale and proliferation of the figure’s death, for civilians to conform to what they perceive as normal. If one does not feel grief, the media tells them that they should feel grief, to do otherwise would be to appear uncaring and unpopular in society. On the other hand, the extent to which one actually feels grief depends on the ‘identification’ factor, if you perceive that person as ‘one of you.’ Princess Diana was seen as the ‘Princess of the People,’ because of her compassion and kindness, reflected in her humanitarian efforts which showed her as ‘royal,’ yet ‘ordinary.’ In the four weeks leading up to her funeral, the suicide rate in England and Wales rose to 17%, and deliberate self-harm rates rose to 44%, compared to the four years previously. Of the greatest increase in suicides was by people most similar to Diana: women aged 25 to 44, whose suicide rate increased by over 45%. This is because they identified with Diana, she became someone who was present in their everyday lives, as opposed to an abstract, detached figure. These growing social attachments have also increased with the rise of social media, celebrity Instagram photos showing ordinary domestic life, humorous ‘tweets’ of failed baking, and awkward interactions, things that show actors and singers, the admired and beloved as “one of us.”

Thus, mourning has evolved into something more. You’re not just capable of grieving for your next-door neighbour, you can grieve for your favourite softball player halfway around the world. The rise of ‘celebrity worship,’ the influence of social media and media networks in dictating narratives and the growing social attachments one can have to their role models all results in a new mourning, a mourning of artwork, poetry, special edition news segments that I’ve seen for David Bowie and Alan Rickman alike. It’s a mourning that I’ve come to appreciate as the ‘imagined community’ of the world, that despite a “forced mourning,” some may see as the media’s monopoly of these deaths, how we respond to it, in mourning or not, is just as important.

 
  Wen-Juenn Lee CONTRIBUTOR

Wen-Juenn Lee CONTRIBUTOR