Prince to Princess: Social media has stolen the way we grieve

If only we could let dead people be dead in peace, instead of attaching our imaginary memories and biographies to them.

 |  5-minute read |   28-12-2016
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Some days back, we were sitting down to eat when the news about George Michael came in. I reminded my parents of the “Last Christmas” video that I’d watched countless times on MTV while growing up.

We discussed the mild irony of his early demise on Christmas, then moved on with our lives. This was only fitting.

I really like George Michael, but I wasn’t his family, friend or colleague, or a musician or music critic. I didn’t deliver his groceries every day. I had no substantial access to his life; so for me, it ended there. But when I logged onto social media, I was bombarded with an overflow of virtual dirges — everything from his overwhelming generosity, his contribution to LGBT rights and AIDS awareness, tweets from random people about his work at a homeless shelter, his tips that changed their lives, and his humanity.

When is the last time you thought of Carrie Fisher? I haven’t ever watched Star Wars. Thankfully my life isn’t a How I Met Your Mother episode, where if I hadn’t watched Star Wars, my husband’s best friend would question my worth.

Thanks to the media, now we know that besides her acting talents, Carrie Fisher “shines brightest in her books”.

The Guardian reports that her witty cynicism made her “the person everyone would want to sit next to at a wedding”, and how the feminist aspect of her performance would put Gloria Steinem to shame.

But do her life choices change our lives? Will countless people acknowledging her black humour make our humour more cutting, or our own drug problems go away? Don’t think so.

embed_122816073751.jpg We discussed the mild irony of George Michael's early demise on Christmas, then moved on with our lives.

The barrage of obituaries recently dedicated to deceased celebrities seem to have one thing in common. They elevate qualities like humility, kindness and humanitarian gestures to a degree of saintliness, imbuing them with a "hero value".

But isn’t human decency the stuff of life, not some extraordinary feat? We forget all too easily that these are normal good values we should embrace. And Fisher being candid about her drug addiction, George Michael’s public embrace of his sexuality, David Bowie’s sexy defiance of gender stereotypes — while bold in themselves, their struggles don’t change ours. Our struggles on the ground are much more complex, layered with challenges that often defy the imagination, and rarely defy the odds.

Much of the f*ck-it attitudes of the personalities that we deify comes from the magic of marketing. And then they die. Their brilliance flares, briefly, exaggeratedly, in the moment of death, until the next celebrity death or terrorist attack.

The pervasiveness of social media provides the illusion of proximity. It makes us believe that their virtual/media avatars bring us closer to the real deal. The everyday-ness of these technologies combined with our own new possibilities of articulation makes us feel closer to fame. Our own memories are entangled with their creations, be it the boyish fantasies that Star Wars generated, or how Leonard Cohen’s lyrics scooped out the very stuff of your souls. But don’t let technology fool you. The gap between “us” and “them” is as vast as ever.

In the process we lose track of what’s real.

The same friend with the elegiac post about Sir Alan Rickman thinks demonetisation is the best thing to happen to India and that the mounting death toll (numbering at least 50) is collateral damage.

The scorching glare of the spotlight on the prized few renders us insensitive to the plight of the great unwashed. There are greater deaths and there are lesser deaths.

You must be famous and dead in order to have your good deeds acknowledged. If you’re ordinary and dead, no one gives a damn. If you’re ordinary and alive, your good deeds go down in the dustbin of history as some anonymous note in a bottle that no one found on the other side of the horizon. If you’re famous and dead, thousands of anonymous individuals who stalked you in life can now redefine its contents after your death. That is the power of social media.

The alarming speed at which we embrace death makes me wonder about grief and mourning in general. Is it that we are insulated to death because of repeatedly viewing or being exposed to horrific violence?

The Syrian crisis with the graphic images of dead, bleeding people, the almost commonplace terrorist attacks, the frequent shootouts like the gay nightclub in Orlando? Do our own histories lend themselves to this desensitisation — the horrors of Partition, the many wars and genocides across the world, past and present? It seems we now indulge in the luxury of picking our grief, and these instances only stand testimony to our numbness towards life and politics.

We have become grief tourists. The tickets are cheap.

Grief is a private, complex process. But the 21st century has no time to feel the cold hands of grief, the intimacy of mourning.

I remember December 27, 2007 for my first adult experience of the death of a public figure, Benazir Bhutto. I was then working as a sub-editor with a newspaper. The shock and horror was raw, and the quality of feeling in the newsroom was electric. It was like death made you feel happy to be alive. Now it makes you feel like reaching out for your smartphone and writing a post.

If only we could let dead people be dead in peace, instead of attaching our imaginary memories and biographies to them.

Also read: John Lennon's son pays a touching tribute to Carrie Fisher

Writer

Piya Srinivasan Piya Srinivasan @srinivasanpiya

The author is a research scholar.

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