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Instant grief – just add social media

Like millions of others I was appalled by the despicable acts of terrorism that killed so many people in Paris on 13 November and destroyed the lives of those who loved them. Thoughts of what happened and why, as well as the ramifications it has triggered, have played heavy on my mind this week. As has people’s reactions.

The very next day I went to a workshop on loss, grief and bereavement. We explored many theories on how we cope with grief, including Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. It’s not a set process – we all spend different amounts of time in each stage and often switch between them.

What I’ve realised since the weekend is that we go through these stages of grief collectively, as well as individually. The difference is we speed through the process much more quickly than when we’re grieving personally.

We were shocked and couldn’t believe what we were seeing and hearing last Friday evening – denial. Denial very quickly turned to anger – the outpouring of hatred towards the terrorists and, sadly from some, to Muslims in general. Just one week on the anger is already starting to dissipate among the general public and vitriolic statuses are no longer being shared on Facebook. We’re already into bargaining. “If we had less lenient immigration laws this wouldn’t have happened.” “If we close our borders we’ll be safe.” We’re looking for ways in which this tragedy might have been avoided. NATO is already taking steps to prevent it happening again. Governments are seeking retribution, a life for a life – true bargaining. I’ve heard friends say they feel really down this week and can’t work out why. Sadness has hit them. And, inevitably, we’ll come to a point of acceptance and move on from the atrocities in Paris, just as we have from 9/11, 7/7 and countless other terrorist attacks. The memories stay but our lives go back to normal.

The death of Princess Diana in 1997 was my first memory of public grieving. Something changed at that time; did the media furore somehow give us permission to share our shock and sadness? Since then, the proliferation of the internet has meant that we are all instantly connected. We are also confronted graphically with the horror of war and terrorism, and somehow feel we have to respond. My feelings towards public grieving are split. I wonder why we grieve for people we never knew, yet think it’s wonderful that we are compassionate and willing to express our feelings?

My personal view is that public grieving is driven by fear, which is reinforced by the press and social media. Fear that one day it might be us who is caught up in a terrorist attack. Fear born out of the realisation that life is fragile and we never know when it might end. Fear that comes from being reminded how little control we have over our destiny. By joining together, do we feel stronger? By sharing our grief do we take comfort from the fact that we’re not alone in our fears? Is public grieving now seen as the right thing to do? If you don’t participate, you can’t care about those who have died – fear of looking bad.

Are we playing into the hands of terrorists and the press by being so fearful, giving over power and allowing them to control us? Or are we becoming more compassionate now that we bear witness to atrocities every day?

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