On mourning someone you’ve never known personally

I have been to many funerals in my life time.

I knew at an early age that black is the color of mourning and a straight face is mandatory at funerals. I learned that, in my family’s culture, white in a girl’s hair symbolizes death and, out of habit, I still do not wear white hair ties.

I have sat through Chinese funerals and Buddhist funerals. I’ve learned the intricate manners of praying, standing, and throwing incense and I have heard of (but been spared) the practice of picking out the deceased’s bones after a cremation.

While I’ve learned much of the etiquette of funerals and of mourning, I have never truly experienced the grief of loss through death. The funerals I have attended have been those of distant, older relatives, many of whom I had met for the first time in the funeral parlor. I’ve survived difficult times, but somehow I have so far been spared (knock on wood) the loss of someone truly close to me.

Of course, I have felt great heartache for the losses suffered by those I care about: my brother, who lost an old childhood friend to leukemia at the age of 30; the wife of a co-worker who lost her battle with breast cancer at 33; friends who have lost children through miscarriage or illness. While the losses are not mine, I ache at the pain that they have to go through and I shudder at the fact that death could touch us so soon.

But what I have felt guilty and ashamed and definitely confused about is the sadness that I have felt at the deaths of people I had never met, people who had had no bearing on my life whatsoever. Is it a waste of emotional energy to feel for “celebrities”? Is the sadness an insult to those who have suffered real and personal losses?

In 1997 I had learned of the death of Princess Diana while waiting for a table at brunch. As a pre-teen, I used to collect photos and newspaper clippings of the Royal Wedding and make scrapbooks out of them. Like any “normal” child, though, I eventually grew out of my fascination with the Princess, and continued to follow her life while waiting in the check-out line of local supermarkets.

But I did cry when she died. It didn’t happen right away, but as the days went on I began to feel more and more. Like many others I felt sorrow for her two boys and disdain for her ex-husband and his long-time lover. What pained me most was the fact that she had suffered so much emotionally when she was alive.

And today I feel great sadness at the passing of Elizabeth Edwards. Like with Diana, I didn’t follow her life too closely. I know probably what most Americans know about her: that she was a passionate advocate, mother, and political wife; that she had already lost her son to a car accident; that her husband had betrayed her and fathered a child during her struggle with cancer. A year ago, I did have the opportunity to hear her speak at a local literary festival (we live in the same town) and was humbled by how down-to-earth she was in this large and public event. She wore a casual shirt and khakis, an outfit you’d see on any mother rushing to drop her kids off at school and running errands.

There is heaviness in my heart because I can relate to her as a mother and wife. I can imagine no greater hurt in my marriage than for my husband to betray me, especially at a time when I would be needing him most. I can imagine no greater and more unbearable pain than to lose a child, and then to have my child lose me before he is ready to let go.

The last funeral I attended was three years ago, when my sister-in-law’s mother-in-law passed away after a long illness that left her basically paralyzed. I had seen her a few times, and always she had such a sweetness and graciousness about her. Each and every time she saw us she would tell us how grateful she was to my sister-in-law for caring for her as her own mother. At her funeral, I found myself crying uncontrollably. I imagined the life she had led before I met her in her final years. Unable to fight the images, I thought about the day I would be in the same place, mourning for my own mother. 

I think that, when we grieve, we are feeling the loss of so many connections and associations that are unique to each one of us. When that sadness is over someone who did not have a regular role in our lives, perhaps we are not only grieving the loss of an individual who had become real to us through stories, but we are also identifying our lives with the life of that person. Through the connections we have formed in our own minds, the loss of an individual, even if we have never met, becomes real and palpable.

6 thoughts on “On mourning someone you’ve never known personally

  1. I think we can see ourselves in others and feel through their expiences. I have a dear friend who just lost her brother. I met him briefly, once, but really didn’t know him. And yet, his death is haunting me today.

  2. Yes, I am the same way. I often put myself in the shoes of those experiencing the loss and I’m overwhelmed by sadness. What if it’s my mom/husband/child and just that thought is unbearable to me.

  3. Oh, I was so hurt when I heard she had passed on.

    I felt I knew her b/c of the pain I went through when I read her autobio on dealing with life after the loss of her oldest son, Wade, when he was 16, in the car accident.

    The writing…it would take your breath away.

    What she did to cope, I could barely make it through the paragraphs.

    You must read it, Ce, it is so beyond anything you could imagine.

  4. It is a shame about Elizabeth Edwards. I feel so sad for her children, losing their mother, especially shortly before Christmas.

    I think you feel the loss of strangers so acutely because you are such a sensitive person. It’s a wonderful trait to have, but it is extra hard on you, to feel so strongly.

  5. I, too, feel others’ losses very deeply. When I’m grieving over someone I never knew personally, or not very well, I always think of the sister in The Secret Life of Bees who would write down what made her sad and put it in notches in the garden wall to try to distance herself from her pain. And I often wish I had a garden wall, too.

    RIP Elizabeth Edwards. She’s with Wade now, finally.

  6. I also grieve other deaths of persons that I did not know personally, mainly because in those persons I saw something of myself or someone else I knew (or once knew). I grieve from a distance, however. I grieve for their memories, their families, and for what they must be going through.

    I can say, however, that in my experience, the emotions felt when you really do know and have once touched the person are a bit different. When you are the family that others look to with sympathetic eyes and voices for a loss, your loss, it is different. To know, speak with, hold hands, form real memories of a person, then to see them in a casket another, is very hard and strange. People die every day, you must tell yourself, but when it happens to you, when a person that you knew personally dies, it’s different. It’s harder. Death and its finality all become too real when that person is someone you once knew.

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