death

Hard to believe, yet the first time I actually saw death was when our Golden Retriever, Max Cohen, had to be put down as his cancer had spread so far that he could no longer eat. We proudly took him out that day and went on his favorite walk, gave him a bully stick, said goodbye to his favorite West Hollywood haunts, and marched him into the vet’s office. I sat on the floor with him as he was given a fatal shot. I held him, cried, and said goodbye. It brought me happiness to bid him farewell, a moment I had never experienced before. Death was a familiar presence in my life. I had encountered five sudden deaths: my grandfather, my father who died by suicide when I was 7, my son who passed away at 3 months old from SIDS, my first husband who died after biking 60 miles, and my mother and stepfather. I witnessed their lifeless bodies adorned in coffins surrounded by grieving visitors. Despite this familiarity, the reality of their passing felt surreal—none died at home; all were sudden events.

When Death Is Like A Curated Depiction

Then I remembered that in the US and the UK, death largely vanishes from the landscape. More people die in antiseptic hospitals, and so we don’t see death; and when we do, it’s more like a curated depiction of the actual event, not the real event.

And then there’s the stigma of grief. People are not allowed to grieve or to wallow in loss. Mothers and Fathers face stigma when their child overdoses and dies. Companies do not give random amounts of time for bereavement leave. Typical mourning rites seem to take closure to this extreme; at a funeral, loved ones may console you in the afternoon only to not continue in the aftermath. Our quickness to tidy up and move on stands in sharp contrast to other cultures like Mexico’s Day of the Dead and the Japanese Buddhist festival of bon.

It has been argued that America’s fascination with mastery, with fixing, with closure, and with moving on may be the culprit that characterizes our conception of grief and wants us to move on.

With my own grief, whether it was an actual death or the loss of a relationship, I have tried to imagine a solution. I have wanted to mourn both loudly and quietly persistently towards a goal until the pain was nearly forgiven. Life and losses have subsequently taught me that this concept is ludicrous and downright dangerous. One must grieve before one can find space for today.

When Private Grief Becomes Public Discourse

On social media, one often finds public grief rooted in private interests. I remember working with the widows of 9/11 and firefighters. These were private individuals thrust into public lives, with many untruths being published. They had no experience with flashing camera lights or inquisitive reporters. Their private grief became the subject of public discourse, and they suddenly became unwanted celebrities in a myriad of flashbulbs painting portraits of despair. When a statesman or a celebrity passes away, or when videos of a distant tragedy circulate, expressions of mourning can sometimes seem less like an opportunity to confront death and more like a mix of performance and sincerity—a way to strategically display one’s sympathies.

When Publicity Grieving Is Trending

Cody Delistraty, in a recent New Yorker article dated June 24, 2022, titled “It’s Mourning In America,” tells us, “Corporations issue statements of solidarity, which are essentially advertisements.” For instance, after the Boston Marathon bombing, the food site Epicurious tweeted, “In honor of Boston and New England, may we suggest: whole-grain cranberry scones!” Crystal Abidin, an ethnographer of Internet culture, refers to this phenomenon as “publicity grieving,” which brings grief into the public sphere in strange and vaguely unnerving forms. The trend of millennials taking “funeral selfies” around 2013 sparked a minor media frenzy, generating think pieces and advice articles, including one from a casket-making company.

The exploitative aspect of publicity grieving is evident. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that collective mourning has once again become intertwined with daily life. Sociologist Margaret Gibson acknowledges that the turn towards death mediated by the Internet differs from death being intimately known and accepted, yet she also recognizes how grief has been normalized, allowing its effects to resurface in social interaction.

One of her studies focused on YouTube bereavement vlogs—videos posted by young people in the days and months following the loss of a parent, forging apparently genuine bonds with strangers watching, sharing their pain, and showcasing how “mourning continues across a lifetime.” Initiatives like The Dinner Party, a predominantly online meetup for those who have experienced various losses, offer a “second space” for grief, bridging “normal” life and the structured privacy of a therapist’s office. Even the funeral-selfie-takers seem to me to have motives more benevolent than voyeuristic self-promotion. Perhaps they sought to share their sense of loss but were unsure how to do so in person without feeling burdensome. While a frivolous form of photography may not appear commensurate with the gravity of death, approaching the subject with some levity and candor may be precisely what we need.

Navigating Grief, Death & Mourning

As for me, I am still navigating grief, loss, death, and mourning. I have explored Machu Picchu, conversed with professionals, shed tears, expressed anguish, and developed small rituals to mourn the loss of friendships, clients, friends, and relatives. I now know that I am not alone, and despite our relentless pursuit of perfection and the notion that things are not as bad as they seem, I remain steadfast in my commitment to providing compassion, care, and non-judgment to those seeking a space to share their sorrows away from the glare of flashbulbs illuminating the sky or Facebook likes cascading across the screen in admiration, only to be swiftly replaced by the next post.