Imagine someone has died. Maybe it’s a young person, high school or college-aged, taken by a drunken car accident on a dark, winding road or by an unforgiving, undiscriminating disease. The community is rocked by an untimely death. Everyone tries to wrap their heads around big concepts they usually try to keep buried like mortality and morality. And even before the family can process their loss, people take to social media. Newsfeeds are flooded with tributes and pictures. Everyone from their high school posts a status about how close they were to the deceased, what good friends they were.
The posts ooze with sincerity, but I can’t help but think, “How sincere is this? How well did you actually know this person? Did you ever spend any time with them, talk to them, get to know them before they died? Or are you jumping on the grief bandwagon? Are you appropriating the grief of those who were actually close to them?”
Maybe I’m being cynical, or overly critical. These people have a right to express their grief. And of course whenever someone dies, it’s a sad situation. But it bothers me when I see people that I know definitely had no connection to someone in life claim that they did after their death. It seems unfair to the family and close friends who have lost a loved one, the people who are actually grieving. To falsely claim to have been a big part of someone’s life is an insult to the people who really were a big part of their life.
What especially gets to me is the unabashed publicity of posting something like this on social media. It turns a tragedy into an attention grab, into how many likes can I get on this, how many people will comment “So sorry for your loss!” (when it was never really your loss to begin with).
And yet, I struggle with finding the right balance between expressing grief and seeking attention too. My dad’s family is Syrian, and I struggle to find my place in relations to the war in Syria. I am a white American; I’m aware of my privilege. I can’t understand the suffering of the Syrian people. But I still feel connected to it through my heritage. My great-grandparents lived in Damascus, a city now razed by shelling. I have distant family in the Middle East, maybe in Syria and maybe not, that I have never met but that share my last name and are my family nonetheless. My ancestors spoke Arabic, a language I am now studying. But I am careful not to overstate my Syrian heritage and encroach on the very real pain of those Syrian people directly affected by the war. I know my boundaries.
There’s a difference between sharing sympathy in the face of a tragedy, be it a death or a war, and appropriating the grief of a tragedy that isn’t yours.