THE GEOGRAPHY OF GRIEF
Are there right and wrong ways to grieve global tragedies?
The tragedy and terror in France made for a heartbreaking evening to witness unfolding. Within minutes of seeing my friends post about their safety, breaking news stories reported an explosion at Le Stade de France, then a hostage situation at Le Bataclan concert hall.
I hit refresh and breaking news stories began to report an explosion at Le Stade de France. Reports from the Bataclan concert hall soon followed. In less than an hour, it became clear something horrific was happening in the city.
As the news broke out about the weekend’s attacks in Paris, we grew increasingly aware of the tragedy’s magnitude in just a few hours. As I spent Friday evening on Facebook, unwinding from a busy week of work, I noticed friends of mine in Paris posting updates to let their loved ones know they were safe.
The next day painted a very vivid picture of what it looks like in today’s world when the globe collectively endures a tragedy. In the immediate hours that followed, my news feeds became a sea of solidarity with France, or as I was often reminded, America’s oldest ally. Profile pictures went red, white, and blue, and #prayforparis came at the end of just about every post.
While all this was happening, the world also learned about a bombing in Beirut that would claim 43 lives. In Baghdad, 26 lives were taken in a roadside bomb.
In less than 24 hours after the Paris attacks, the thinkpieces appeared. Numerous blogs, posts, and online magazines began to point out the inequality in attention and empathy given to France over the other sites of tragedy. Some labeled the solidarity with France as misguided, prejudiced, even.
When Facebook installed a “safety check-in” feature for users in Paris and a profile picture filter in French colors, it received backlash for not producing nothing of the sort in Lebanon. Many commentators immediately pointed towards racism and Western bias.
Needless to say, the mix of strong feelings, provocative opinions, and global confusion were altogether confusing.
In the aftermath of the attacks in Paris, two things which I strongly believed seemed to be in opposition to each other.
One– you can’t dictate people’s emotions. There isn’t really a “right” way to grieve, because grief is a response to brokenness.
Two– it’s a terrible thing that our society doesn’t grieve for Beirut or Baghdad the way it does for Paris, and that in itself reflects so many things that are broken in this world.
My best guess as to why we struggle to display the same level of sympathy towards Beirut is that the attack in Paris was more of a violation of a place that is beautiful and familiar to us. Since Friday, I’ve lost count of the amount friends of mine who’ve posted pictures of themselves standing beneath the Eiffel tower. That backs up its status as one of the most heavily touristed places in the world, being visited by 1.6 million Americans every year. For anyone who’s ever visited the city, it most likely brings back positive memories from that trip. It’s also a place that’s firmly fixed in the American imagination for having exquisite architecture, amazing food, and a romantic vibe. It’s a city that’s made a mark for it’s elegance, that’s been widely perceived as safe. It’s the city of light.
Beirut, on the other hand, receives far less attention from the West. Although it is a highly developed and modern city, many people don’t know that. It’s pretty common for us Americans to lump the entirety of the Middle East together. This is one of the dangers of doing that. It’s true that you feel a stronger sense of empathy to places we are more familiar with.
Does this fact excuse the imbalance of sympathy? Not exactly. The fact that many have claimed this sort of violence is said to be expected from the Middle East should call those expectations into question. While I think it’s natural to feel more sympathy for places that are more familiar to us, the fact that we often avoid the opportunity to become familiar with cultures in places that are further away, darker skinned, or less Western prevents us from developing this sort of empathy to begin with. Some of that, at least, stems from large scale prejudices.
At the same time, critiquing people’s grieving process does not seem like the best way to bring about this change. Grief is an incredibly complicated part of the human process, and there’s not exactly a universal template to follow. Online campaigns to grieve correctly miss the reality of what it means to grieve.
The rise of online activism as led to both positive and negative effects. At any minute, I can scroll through Salon, Slate, or .Mic and emerge with a whole new vocabulary list to use when discussing race, gender, class, and so forth. While today’s world is more educated about inclusive speech, challenges to equality, and a myriad of other social issues, it has also developed a strongly reactive culture that polices political correctness in ways that aren’t always healthy. Step outside of the lines, in some cases, and its an invitation to be eaten alive on the internet.
Policing the grieving process does nothing to erase tragedy. While I’m sure much of the rally cry to not forget about the other locations of tragic events was made in good intentions, there’s also something missing. Telling people how they should or shouldn’t feel sympathy also robs us of our humanity. The reality is that we don’t grieve tragedies in evenly distributed ways. If we did, I suspect we would never stop shedding tears.
Sometimes, it can be easy for us to rush off in righteous indignation, wanting so badly to defend the oppressed, that we don’t do this in the most healthy ways.
In less than 48 hours after the tragedy, Facebook received a wave of backlash for their French flag filters, as representation of the Lebanese or Iraqi flag was conspicuously absent. An interesting question to consider however, is if there is a way for them to offer an option that isn’t problematic. Offering users a drop-down menu of flag filters so they could “choose a tragedy” doesn’t seem much better.
In reality, Facebook would need to offer all flags at all times, because tragedies happen everywhere. No human being could possibly mourn all of them evenly, and if that person tried, he or she would never stop crying.
Grief doesn’t mix with logic or pragmatism very well. Does the death count determine how sad an event was? Does it matter whose lives were lost? Are individual deaths less tragic simply on the basis of quantity? Truly wrestling with any one of these questions quickly causes us to realize that there is no logistically sound way to grieve.
Grief on a global scale is a fairly new phenomenon. Our human capacity for sympathy hasn’t caught up with how quickly we can be made aware of all the horrible things that occur on a daily basis. For most of human history, we’ve lived in much smaller communities. We were designed and bred to form a smaller number of deeper relationships. We can grieve deeply because we were made to attach so strongly to a handful of individuals. There was a time where, if some major disaster happened in a far off land, you would have no way of knowing.
As an international studies researcher who is married to a professional mental health counselor, I’ve found myself fascinated by the new emergence of a globalized grieving process in response to certain events. I’ve been interested in how this has become a new way of living in the world in recent times. Today, you sometimes have to make an active effort not to find tragedies and news stories to feel upset about. At any given moment, with a few keystrokes, you could discover some unthinkable attrocities in parts all over the world. Whenever some horror on a large scale happens in front of us, as it did in France this week, the reality is that the world didn’t suddenly experience a surge of evil. Like the moon never actually disappears as it revloves around the earth, the one difference this time was that it passed right in front of us. Horrors happen quite frequently, and it’s only a fraction of those times when we’re really forced to wrestle with their existence.
In light of this, I think people have every right to grieve. I suppose I’d think of it as something even more essential than a right. Processing grief is a need. It’s also a mysterious and confusing process, that I can’t pretend to know very much about.
One thing that I know is essential to grieving in a healthy way is honesty. Truly coming to terms with a terrible event in the past requires that we don’t keep any parts of it burried or hidden.
When we’re honest with ourselves, we can admit how heartbroken we are about the state of our world. We can admit to feelings of confusion, fear, or extreme sorrow after the attacks in France.
When we’re honest with ourselves, we can also admit that we have biases in how we grieve. We can start to take the small steps to reduce them in the long run. We can befriend people from all parts of the world, learning about their homes. We can save up some cash for one of the greatest educations of all- travel.
When we’re honest with ourselves, we can put down the things we hide behind to mask our feelings of sadness. Admitting sadness is a vulnerable action, and so it makes sense why we would rather express righteous indignation than sadness. But when we admit that we’re grieving we can halt our crusading against others and look towards healing.
When we’re honest with ourselves, we’re no longer looking to correct or police the thoughts and actions of others. Instead we look to see what we can do as individuals.
There’s one other strange thing about grief worth mentioning. Grief brings people together. It unites people in a strange and really powerful way.
After witnessing the horrors of last weekend in Paris, we’re all a little bit more aware of how uncertain and fragile life can be.
The horrors we witnessed in Paris is something that is sadly a lot more familiar to Baghdad. As of last weekend, it’s now something we share. After a terrible weekend full of tears and sadness and uncertainty, we get the chance to see that whether French or Iraqi or Lebanese or American, we’re all just incredibly human. Fragile. Exhausted from all the fighting in the world. We all understand life is precious and worth protecting, but so difficult sometimes. And that gives us a reason to stand together.
And the more we stand together, the more familiar the other becomes.