Written by Taylor Glenn

In The News

Mourning sickness or collective grief?

As sure as night follows day, people took to social media to express their sadness over David Bowie’s death and others criticised them for it. We asked psychologist Taylor Glenn about processing the loss of legends.

withered rose“As you get older, the questions come down to about two or three. How long? And what do I do with the time I’ve got left?” – David Bowie

When I saw the news on Monday morning that David Bowie had died, it felt like a strange kick in the gut. It was the same way I had felt when Robin Williams died, when Philip Seymour Hoffman died… the list goes on.

Then I waited for two things to happen: one, the outpouring of emotion, grief and tributes in the media (of both the social and not-so-social variety), and two, the intense scorn of those who roll their eyes at the former. Both happened, and fast. A heady mix ranging from emoji-ridden Twitter tributes to scathing blogs telling people to “get a fucking grip.”

Someone whose work I admired was no longer here and I was processing that. But I’d never met him, and before today, hadn’t thought of him in a long time. Yet before I put my daughter to bed, I was compelled to put on some of his songs and say his name to her, and we danced with (appropriately gaudy) dollies. She asked for Starman twice and I complied, touched that she liked it, and welling up a little bit as the lyric “let the children boogie” played.

Thing is, not only do I not have any personal connection to David Bowie, but I didn’t even have the sort of emotional link to him I quickly saw expressed. For instance, a journalist I’m friends with on Facebook who posted about the time he met Bowie and how much that interaction had touched him. Or the writer I know who tweeted that he couldn’t stop crying because he had Bowie to thank for his learning to embrace his own sexuality.

“‘Mourning sickness’ is a pejorative term which was coined to refer to the modern response to the death of celebrities.”

Obviously, none of us is going through what his close family and friends are. So do we have the ‘right’ to grieve? What is going on for us when we react to the death of a public figure and why does it seem to put people into two opposing camps?

Psychology hasn’t always got it right when it comes to loss. For instance, the oft-referenced Kübler-Ross ‘stages of grief’ were originally devised to explain an individual’s acceptance of his or her own death. But these stages came to be a guide for counsellors to help people through bereavement and are still sometimes used today.

We now know through recent research (and, perhaps, common sense) that the psychological response to loss is much more individual, far less linear and not as prescriptive as the ‘stages’ suggest. And of course, early theories of grief could never have accounted for the way we share and absorb information in the modern age. Nor have they accounted for the psychological connections we have to people we may not have met, but who have affected us deeply through their lives and work.

As a rule in the Western world, we tend to value resilience, and praise those who are able to ‘get on with things’ instead of wallowing in emotion. Strength is measured by one’s ability to detach from pain and cope with daily life, rather than the ability to embrace and openly process difficult feelings.

sad personIn this regard, we aren’t great with grief as a society, because it’s a burden to our psychological value system. Grief does not fit into a neat little box any more than it fits into convenient, predicable stages.

And so, we like to give it time and severity limits. If someone grieves too hard or for too long (i.e. more than one year), clinicians start to question the individual’s mental health and start talking mood disorder diagnoses. Family and friends may begin to whisper that someone isn’t coping very well and needs to move on. Sometimes, we aren’t even sure what to say when someone’s grieving and we spend a great deal of time worrying how we should react if someone breaks down in grief. We wonder if we should say “died” or “passed away” or nothing at all. It seems we are fascinated by and avoidant of death in equal measure.

‘Mourning sickness’ is a pejorative term which was coined to refer to the modern response to the death of celebrities. And ‘grief porn’, a term I rather like, refers to the media’s sensationalist approach to the death of public figures.

“Do we have the ‘right’ to grieve? What is going on for us when we react to the death of a public figure and why does it seem to put people into two opposing camps?”

There’s no doubt it’s a mixed bag when it comes to the media coverage of death (I’m trying so hard not to reference Princess Diana here), but if we are also labouring under our own mixed messages of grief, then the societal split which occurs when someone famous dies only makes sense. After all, for better or worse, social media has given us the platform to say that which we can’t always say in real life. And so, some of us are drawn to experiencing and expressing our emotions, and others are drawn to stifling and critiquing this process. It’s a public display of conflicting approaches that mirrors our personal one.

Bowie, of all people, lived in rebellion of social norms. His transformations as a performer were steeped in emotional expression and personal exploration. In many ways, the creative world is the antidote to our own emotional stifling: we listen to music and seek out art and performance and dance that allows us to feel and sets us free. It’s a safe space to explore that which is often taboo. So when a public figure who has touched us dies, it’s also a safe space to explore our own mortality and reflect on the timeline of our own lives. It’s more than just a tribute, it’s a process of collective grief.

So do we have the ‘right’ to grieve for someone we don’t even know? Absolutely. The day we feel we cannot grieve for a hero is the day we need to question how we are approaching grief in general. And maybe through this process, we can even learn how to approach mortality and personal grief in a more uncensored way.


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Written by Taylor Glenn

Taylor is an American comedian, writer, and former psychotherapist based in London. She has a two-year-old and a dead basil plant.