Expropriating other people’s grief

What was your reaction to the shootings last week at the elementary school? If you were like me, you probably felt a combination of shock, sadness, and anger. Shock at the scale of the carnage and the age of most of the victims, sadness at the thought of the terrible grief that the loved ones of the victims must be feeling, and anger at the person who did such an awful thing.

What I did not feel was grief. Grief is something that one feels when one knows the victim and the sense of loss is personal, and the closer the relationship, the greater the grief. But I have noticed a trend in which the reactions to such events are becoming nationalized, as if we all vicariously suffered the way that the people of the community directly hit suffered, with people saying things like “We are all (insert the name of the location where the tragedy occurred) now.”

No, we are not all of that same place and there is no way we can be. I am linking once again to an excellent essay by Rosa Brooks in 2007 in the wake of the mass shootings at Virginia Tech, where she wondered why it is that these days everyone wants to act as if they too have suffered a bereavement.

Did you feel sad when you heard the news? Did you ponder, however fleetingly, the mystery of mortality? If so, don’t just go on with your ordinary life as if nothing has happened to disrupt it (even though nothing has happened to disrupt it). Honor your grief! Attend a candlelight vigil, post a poignant message on one of MySpace’s Virginia Tech memorial pages and please, seek trauma counseling as soon as possible.

Convincing ourselves that we’ve been vicariously traumatized by the pain of strangers has become a cherished national pastime. Thus, the Washington Post this week accompanied online stories about the shooting with a clickable sidebar, “Where to Find Support” — apparently on the assumption that the mere experience of glancing at articles about the tragedy would be so emotionally devastating that readers would require trained therapists.

There’s something fraudulent about this eagerness to latch onto the grief of others and embrace the idea that we, too, have been victimized. This trivializes the pain felt by those who have actually lost something and pathologizes normal reactions to tragedy. Empathy is good, but feeling shocked and saddened by the shootings doesn’t make us traumatized or special — these feelings make us normal.

My children were in college during the time of the shootings at Virginia Tech and other college campuses. Since the events did not take place on their particular campuses, it never crossed my mind to call them to see if they were ok and they did not expect it either. When we did speak at some point, they said they were surprised at the number of parents of other students that had called to make sure their children were fine.

Maybe I am heartless or maybe our family is somewhat more phlegmatic than others but it all seems a bit much to me. We have not suffered like the friends and family of the people who were killed and it somehow seems insulting to them to act as if we had.


  1. Matt Penfold says

    I recall how the UK seemed to collectively loose its mind following the death of Princess Diana. I recall being shocked and saddened on hearing of her death, and later I felt some anger towards the paparazzi, who if they did not cause her death, contributed to it. I was just bemused at the the Royal Family was expected to come back to London, even though they were caring for two teenage boys who had just lost their mother. And I was annoyed by the way those of us who did not openly evidence of grieving were somehow considered uncaring.

  2. Thorne says

    This is a comforting post for me. I’ve sometimes wondered if there were something wrong with me since I don’t feel the grief, or fear, that so many people claim to be feeling. Horror that such things can happen? Yes, I do feel that. Sadness for those who lost their lives? Certainly. Sympathy for those who have lost loved ones? Of course. But grief? Why? I didn’t know anyone there, didn’t lose anyone even remotely close to me. So why would I feel grief?

    I’ve had similar issues with other tragedies over the years. Yes, I’ve felt horror, sadness, even anger sometimes. But never grief. And I could never understand why someone else, someone who was in no way connected with the victims or the perpetrators, would feel such an emotion. Sometimes I think they just fake it in order to make themselves feel connected to the event. Which is probably a sad commentary on their lives.

    Anyway, thanks for making me feel less alienated from the human race. Or maybe, given what the human race seems capable of, I shouldn’t be thanking you. I might be better off being less human, and more humane.

  3. AsqJames says

    Matt Penfold,

    That was the first reference point I thought of as I started to read this post. I think, on a much smaller scale, we’ve seen similar reactions to the sudden and/or early deaths of other celebrities (Jade Goody springs to mind for some reason).

    I have no evidence for this, but I suspect the expansion of “celebrity culture” is a large part of it. There seems to be a large number of people who spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about the private lives of actors, singers, sports people, TV personalities, etc. There are weekly, sometimes even daily, updates on what’s going on in these people’s lives – where they’re eating lunch, who they’re partying with, what their relationship status is, what exercise regime or diet they’re on, what they’re wearing, etc. With so much information about these people, more sometimes than I know about some of my family or friends, it’s not so much of a surprise that people who consume a lot of that information feel they know these celebrities personally.

    In the case of Diana PoW, she was right up there as one of the most watched people in the world and appealed to a wide variety of demographics. Maybe the number of people who felt they knew her reached some kind of critical mass which created some kind of mass psychosis. At such times, the front cover of Private Eye is often a comforting antidote.

  4. Vote for Pedro says

    Makes me think of the beginning of the excellent Children of Men – the main character uses the “traumatic” death of a famous person as an excuse to take the day off.

  5. mnb0 says

    Sorry, no. I didn’t feel anymore shock and anger than after reading about the Japanese children in the tsunami early 2011, the Pakistan children killed by American drones or African children starving from hunger. Sensationalist media have emotionally numbed me. I save these feelings for children much closer to me.
    Neither did I feel any more shock and sadness after the death of Lady Di than after the yearly 700 victims of car accidents in The Netherlands.
    Doesn’t prevent me from condemning lack of gun control and disliking paparazzi.

  6. Thorne says


    Yes, the shock value of those kinds of tragedies is relatively low, because they happen so often. Tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, they all can produce sadness and sympathy, but shock isn’t generally there. The shock value in the Sandy Hook incident, and others like it, is that someone would walk into a school and just start shooting children. The anger comes from hearing all of the idiot Monday-morning quarterbacks digging out their religious and political banners and trying to tack them onto the coffins of the dead.

  7. Kimpatsu says

    Mano, I would have thought genuine grief by everyone even for those deceased we never met personally was a good thing, It would mean that humanity was finally outgrowing its infantile tribalism and becoming a single tribe or team. It’s the ability to think of some people as “other” and not of one’s own in-group that allows atrocities like drone killings of children in Pakistan (remember, but a Pakistani 4YO dies than an American 4YO). What you seem to be objecting to is ersatz grief, whereby people outwardly exhibit the manifestation of grief without feeling anything of the sort. Real grief born of genuine empathy-an emotional connection even to those you have never met-would mean the melding of humanity, a heightened concern for all, which in turn will reduce violence.
    Finally, on a practical note, the reason for calling your children in the wake of Virginia Tech to check on them is because of the dangers of copycat rampage killers.

  8. Crudely Wrott says

    I cannot recall being shocked by bad news or ugly events since I was about eight years old. That was when I learned an in depth history of the twentieth century. I had access to books and during the fifties there were lots of books about the second world war, the one before that and revolutions and atrocities by the double handful that marked the first half of that century. Rather than having nightmares about gulags and concentration camps I became more curious and as time passed I learned more of history, some of it going back to the earliest know records. So no, I wasn’t shocked when I heard that another asshole with a gun killed another helpless group of victims.

    Saddened, yes. Deeply. Disappointed? Again, deeply. Having learned history as a child I grew up entertaining the idea that by the time I became an adult people would be generally wiser, kinder and more, you know, grown up. I was so naive.

    The latest shooter is just another in the seemingly endless stream of people who seem to have lost all connection with their fellow humans. They are quite common, actually. Twenty some more individuals have been killed by firearms in America alone since the Newtown event. Nearly every day some idiot straps on explosives and walks into a crowd of strangers and detonates. The tally of horror is something that has become a background noise to normal life, or, more properly, remains so.

    What I do feel most keenly is anger. I am angry that such miserable people exist and that they find a way to make others pay the price for their misery. I am impatient for societies to address that very issue and I am frightened that attempts to do so will be misguided and put innocent, harmless people in jeopardy.

    I am doubtful that any real and just solution to senseless violence is at hand and am doubly uncertain that American politicians are equipped to deal with the problem. The only thing that I find hopeful is that maybe, after a saturation point of massacres has been reached, some effective percent of the general population will develop the awareness to spot, identify, refer to treatment, warn neighbors or physically stop unfortunate failures such as Adam Lanza from inflicting their horrors on the rest of us.

    Yes, like I was when I was a child, I still have faith in my fellow humans; I think we have it in us to solve such intractable problems. It’s just that now, I don’t think I’ll live to see it happen. I wish the youth of today good luck and urge them to pay attention!

  9. catlover says

    Crudely Wrott: You put it very well. I think education is a good part of the solution. But what to do about those who are impervious to being educated? I have no answer to that. Perhaps these unteachable ones may change for the better some day. And I think those who are teachable are the majority. That is my hope.

  10. says

    9/11 was the same way for me. I was in Tennessee when it happened, on my way to North Carolina, when planes flew into buildings hundreds of miles from me. I was pretty much over it on 9/12, when my local comic book shop failed to open because people died hundreds of miles away, and the mall was closed for “security reasons”. People all over the country joined in the “grief” nonsense, and all I wanted to do was scream at them to stop treating it like football or the Olympics, where “we” win and lose even though “we” aren’t doing anything but watching other people compete.

    It is the opposite of coming together or expressing empathy, it is shallow and narcissistic self-absorption. It is taking every tragedy no matter how big or small, and reshaping it until it is just the right size for it to fit you.

  11. Thorne says

    It’s somewhat encouraging to see so many others who seem to think and feel as I do. Makes me think that maybe I’m not as warped and strange as I believed.

    Damn it!

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