Thursday, December 6, 2012

Subsumed and Pornified Grief

Much ado has been made lately about me.  I've been referred to as cold hearted, lacking manners, unsympathetic and shameful.

I have never claimed to be a warm or loving person.  I freely admit that empathy is something I struggle with, and more often than not have to talk myself through.

In this particular situation, however, the assumptions people were making about my motives or the condition of my heart when I made a very particular remark are in no way, shape, or form in line with my actual motives or heart.

In the face of great tragedy, there were a number of remarks in my facebook news feed that were extremely disturbing to me.  That two young girls had disappeared five months ago and their bodies were likely found is tragic.  Many of the responses from individuals in the community where these children had lived in support of these families was beautiful.

A large number of the responses in my personal news feed, from people I know, however, were not offering support to the family.  They were status updates about their own sense of loss and grief now that the bodies had been discovered, and there was near certainty by the authorities that they were the bodies of the missing girls.  The vast majority of my friends had never heard of either of these families prior to the disappearance of their children.

There were some disturbing trends taking place in the community, and I responded quite strongly to what I saw as the subsumption of familial grief by a social network "community."  Hundreds of people expressing grief, mourning, and heartbreak at the discovery of the remains of two individuals they had never met and to whom they had absolutely no personal connection.

I have not, however, seen any of these individuals expressing a similar sense of grief, mourning, and heartbreak for any of the other tragedies that happen around the world on a daily basis.  These individuals were assuming grief and heartache that isn't theirs.  While the untimely deaths of these two girls is tragic, it is no more or less tragic than the systemic rape, torture and murder of young girls the world over.  None of these individuals has previously expressed mourning for them.  What makes this different?

Additionally, the families specifically requested, through a police representative, that their privacy be respected during these difficult circumstances.  Here was a group of people claiming this familial grief as their own, and focusing on themselves as they put this family at the forefront of a social networking site, robbing them of any privacy in the digital world.

I was also incredibly frustrated by the disingenuous nature of the dual-messages being spread concerning the case throughout the five months these children were missing.

A few days after these children disappeared, news media indicated the police suspected one of the girl's fathers because he was convicted of several crimes, including possession of illegal substances, two months prior to the girls' disappearance.

There was much speculation amongst most of the people I know about this revelation.  Many people shared their own suspicions that this family was intimately involved their own child's and their niece's disappearance, based on the fact that this girl's father uses drugs.

That those who struggle with substance abuse are regularly cast under a cloud of suspicion is deeply offensive to me, as I happen to love and hold dear a number of people who have struggled with substance abuse.  Even more offensive to me was the fact that these same individuals who were shouting the loudest about dead-beat fathers who use drugs and put their children at risk from drug kingpins were heavy drug users themselves this side of ten years ago.

When these girls were first reported missing, the surrounding communities offered significant support to both families--searching for the children, holding vigils, starting a fund to assist the families in light of the fact that they could not work for some time as they assisted investigators in the search for their children.

Once the news broke that one of the families had a history of drug use, and people began to speculate that this history was connected to the disappearance of these girls, the public support I witnessed in person and on facebook was withdrawn from the family with this history of substance abuse.  Additionally, when fundraisers were discussed, people specifically requested that their gifts be restricted to the support of the family that did not have a history of substance abuse.

As soon as the bodies were discovered, the statements of support and mourning, however, were once again focused on both families.  All speculation seemed to have stopped for a moment, as people put aside their own assumptions about who is acceptable and who is not.  I find it significantly problematic that people are only willing to express sympathy for those who do not fit the mold of social acceptability when tragedy strikes in the most horrific way.

I will also be woefully unsurprised if, in the coming days and weeks, given our cultural notions of worthiness, innocence, guilt by association, the public discourse concerning this case once again primarily focuses on the family that more closely fit the mold of social acceptability.
The role social media has played in the unfolding of this tragedy is also deeply disturbing.  Virtually no one I know has any personal connection to either of these kids, but so many people I know are seemingly devastated by it. They didn't lose anything, it's not their grief, and there is something deeply offensive to me about the pornification of tragedy as unconnected individuals make it about them.

Grief is deeply personal and private. The families have asked for privacy, and people are treating this loss as though they have some right to it.  And I believe this tendency is a result of the over-exposed, tell-all, zero-boundaries, denial-of-privacy, exhibitionist/voyeuristic nature of social media.

Ultimately, this is the families' grief, and the grief of those who know the families. And the sense of ownership over these girls lost lives that has been expressed by those I know is disturbing.

Lastly, I saw at least one comment in which the poster indicated "We will never understand the will of God."  If you've read this far, and take nothing else from this post, please read and understand THIS:

God had absolutely NOTHING to do with this tragedy.  The deaths of these two girls has nothing to do with the will of God.  It is the sole result of the will of the individual or individuals who committed this heinous crime.

This situation is tragic, like many others.  But it is the tragedy of these families.  The grief belongs to those who have lost these children.  It is not my grief, there is no reason for this grief to belong to those who have no connection to these girls.  Subsuming that grief can, in many situations, put the families who were directly affected by a loss, in the position of caring for the feelings of those who were not directly affected by that loss.  This is also deeply offensive to me.

If it's not your tragedy, and it's not your grief, get over it. Because there are people out there who are grieving a loss that is personal and intimate, and they need care and support.

While I was on the receiving end of a significant amount of hate mail in response to my own comments, only two people actually sought to understand my motives, rather than drawing their own inaccurate conclusions and assumptions.  One person sent me a private message asking what thoughts had motivated my response.  The other approached me in person and asked about it because they felt that what was communicated was completely out of character for me.  This second person also requested that I write a blog about why I responded in the very strong way I did, poor timing and all.  (Here you go, H!)  When misinterpreted in the way most did, it was out of character for me.  Which is why it is always best to ask if you ever have doubts.

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