Grief is not a spectator sport. I began writing this weeks and weeks ago but struggled with the attitude my earlier drafts conveyed. Recently, though, I was inspired by a post written by Megan Devine entitled “Have You Been the News? When Private Pain Is a Public Spectacle.” [I hope you’ll take time to read the insightful telling of her experience and outlook.]
I used to watch, read, and listen to news around the clock. I felt for people whose lives were impacted by tragedy. I offered prayers in their behalf. I loaned my (admittedly scant) resources toward alleviating their sufferings or helping others in similar circumstances.
In January 2006, “the news” became more personal. I’d known Amber Peck — a bright and loving, cheerful and inquisitive young woman — through my friends, her brother and sister-in-law. The first time I heard newscasters report on missing campers in the Ocala National Forest, I didn’t hear their names, but I nevertheless offered a prayer for them and their families. It wasn’t until the next day I learned Amber was one of the two.
News coverage that once fingertip-touched my heart into a skipped beat now threw it into unfamiliar pounding. From that moment on, news reports of missing persons have meant recalling the unbearable pain of uncertainty. I witnessed tiny fragments of what Amber’s family experienced during those agonizing (yet hopeful) days before she and her friend were found. After their untimely deaths, I witnessed her family’s suffering up close. I grieved for their loss, and I grieved Amber for myself, too.
In the years that followed, I still read or listened to the news. However, I all but stopped watching broadcasts — tuning in only for the weather — because I couldn’t bear seeing victims’ or survivors’ eyes. Watching “real life” news stories meant witnessing “real life” loss, and I’d learned a friend’s fraction of that pain. Even features with positive outcomes elicited shameful envy. While I rejoiced over reunions for the “lucky” story-of-the-day families, the finality of the Pecks’ loss left me “jealous” in their behalf.
My aversion to the news intensified after my husband died. Where news organizations reported causes of war, terrorism, natural disasters, crashes, and crimes, I heard and saw stories of grieving survivors. I wept for the dead, but I sobbed for their loved ones.
The next time you hear about breaking news, chances are the “real life” story is of breaking hearts, forever changed. If you know the family, do offer your condolences. Share memories of their loved one. Be with them in body and spirit — and remain with them long after the cameras and recorders have clicked off.
Thank you for sharing, Teresa. I don’t really watch news any more either, because it’s filled with horrible things. (Not to mention all the pharmaceutical commercials in between…!) Perhaps we’re all numb to them now, but you’re right those are real stories of real people and we need to extend our compassion to them.
Thanks, Yumi. It can be difficult to balance staying informed about important current events with avoiding the too often sensationalized stories of tragedy. I have great respect for those reporters who approach grieving families with compassion that pricks their audience into helpful acts of support.
(And I’m 100% in agreement over those ads!)
Teresa, the finished article is well worth the effort you put into it. I used to love the “human interest” aspect of these kinds of stories but have since changed my mind. People should be allowed to grieve or wait or hope in private — unless there is a way that publicizing the situation can help. You did good work here.
Thank you, Shelby. I agree that families’ privacy should be respected. No matter how public the figure (or the event) grief is always, first and foremost, triggered by personal loss. I agree with Megan Devine’s summary of reasons such coverage could be helpful [see her post, linked at the end of mine].
Important perspective, Teal. Grief seems inescapable to me–perhaps because of my hospice work or just bad luck in my community of friends and family. For me, grief is an opportunity for a personal version of the Buddhist tonglen practice, taking in the suffering of others, as well as my own, while breathing out soothing comfort. I don’t stick my head in the news anymore either and can’t imagine going to a violent movie, but when loss hits close to home, as it does over and over again, I open my heart, make a phone call or a pot of soup, and show up. Not a spectator, but a supporter and helper. Thank you for this post. It makes me think deeply about what I write and offer the world. I love Megan’s posts, but haven’t read the one you recommend. I’m sure I’ll agree.
“ I open my heart, make a phone call or a pot of soup, and show up. Not a spectator, but a supporter and helper.”
These are words of practicality and compassion joined by wisdom, Elaine. Such acts of kindness lifted me body and soul when I was at my lowest.
After a few minutes spent browsing your site I see glimpses of the lessons death taught you on the way to developing that wisdom. Thank you for providing positive, candid insight to people learning to cope with caregiving and bereavement. I look forward to reading more of your posts.
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