It’s been a pretty bad year for beloved celebrities killing themselves.
Waking up on Friday to a feed full of photos of Anthony Bourdain, I knew it wasn’t good. Social media’s collective, as close to single-minded as possible photo gallery of a celebrity either means a death or a birthday, and no one seems to be having birthdays any more. Just a few days earlier, fashion designer Kate Spade was found dead at her own hand. Summer is upon us, but the days are still dark.
The collective processing of grief on social media tends to encompass multiple waves of actions, reactions, backlashes, and re-lashes, all within a few hours. The steps often go as follows:
- Initial outpour. People shocked, saddened, heartbroken, express their shock, sadness, heartbreak.
- That Guy Who’s Like: “I just think it’s weird/sad/dumb/stupid that people are getting all sad about this CELEBRITY when (insert cause, or other, more important celebrity) didn’t get the same amount of mentions. . .”
- Backlash to That Guy. Shaming of the shamers.
- Emerging narrative around the life and/or death of person in question.
- Judgement surrounding said narrative, especially if drugs or suicide are involved. Often by someone who’s spent years cultivating a macho image.
- Backlash to these responses.
- “Actually, they were a really problematic figure because______”
- Backlash to that, frequently phrased in it’s own set of fairly problematic terms.
- “Maybe now we can finally have a conversation about (addiction, depression, bi-polar, modern health care)”
- And finally (also sometimes firstly) the waves of folks posting “If you need anything, if you’re ever in a dark place, please do not hesitate to reach out. You are not alone.”
These are all pretty common, and at least nominally understandable ways to process. When things seem so heavy, and a loss seems so big– or unexpected, people won’t always know what to say. To demand eloquence, nuance, or perfect social posturing in the face of loss is unreasonable to me. (Which is also to say, don’t be That Guy. Not when people are hurting.) I think that even some of the takes or reactions I disagree with (lookin’ at you, Kilmer) come from places of grief, of trying to understand, trying to make sense of the overwhelming a lotness of it all.
AND YOU KNEW THERE’D BE A “BUT”
That last one. The “If you need anything” post. . .
That’s a tall, heavy, promise. It’s a noble sentiment, solid intention, but in the context of the great, open space of social media, it reads like many other situations where persons or people promise an intimacy they can’t back up.
To really “be there” for someone suffering generally takes more than a phone call. It takes generating and cultivating a trust between the two of you. It frequently means being able– and willing– to educate yourself about whatever your friend is dealing with, and not insisting they process life in the same way you do. It might mean multiple late conversations, when you’re tired, when you aren’t feeling psychologically heroic. When you’ve heard it all before and you just want to go to sleep.
There is also the issue that the whole “we didn’t know how badly they were suffering” narrative subtly pushes the idea that friends, family, and larger communities can always save people who do not want to be saved. That a kind, listening ear is the same as a mental health professional.
I know there are folks out there, possibly reading this, who have big hearts and boundless energy who sincerely mean their offers to help one of the 500+ humans on their facebook feed.
BUT LET’S BE REAL
It also just makes you look good. Which is essentially what social media is for; it’s for looking good. It can spread information, it can create or solidify connections, but it’s all through a constructed-image lens. So forgive me, but when I see someone who I’ve met three times through mutual friends offer up “help” between their feed full of withering call-outs and selfies. . . I’m just. a little. skeptical. I’m not reaching out to that person. It feels naïve at best, and self-serving at worst. Because if I’m in a dark place, reading that easily-made, rarely-backed up offer actually serves to make me feel more alone rather than less. Because a social media platform that is based on trying to mutually impress each other isn’t really where I’m going to be vulnerable.
So. Forgive my hesitation.
Also published on Medium.