Mourning Strangers

Why does the passing of certain people affect me more deeply, while others may depart with scarcely a thought? I’m not talking about deaths of family or friends here, I mean people whom I have never met and know only through their work in whatever field.

What got me thinking about this was reading yesterday of the death of Dennis Ritchie, a major figure in the world of computing. I started wondering why I felt sad on this occasion, while I was emotionally untouched when I heard that Steve Jobs had died. After all, I never met either of them – I never even saw them in the flesh. And I generally have neutral feelings towards strangers – people I don’t know.

Was there something about Dennis Ritchie that created a connection for me? I think so. When you experience works created by somebody, I believe you pick up aspects of their psyche. It might be from reading what they have written, seeing their visual art, using tools that they have created. An author’s voice is preserved in their writing and transmitted by the act of reading those words.

The second programming language I learned was C, created by Dennis Ritchie et al. The canonical reference book for the language, a work I know very well, was co-authored by Ritchie. And through his involvement in the development of the Unix operating system, there are aspects of him reflected in parts of that and derived works. So despite never meeting him, I do feel a degree of connection, of identifying with him – I feel an echo of him from his works and through that there is a sense of familiarity.

I don’t know how it works for other people – I have known people to feel grief on hearing of the death of some “celebrity”. I guess they watch them acting on TV or read about them in magazines and through that feel that they know them. That doesn’t do it for me. But somebody like an author or an artist with whose works I am familiar – then I feel that I have gleaned an insight into their mind from those works and in a small way I have begun to know them. At that point an emotional bond has been made. For me that is a prerequisite for a sympathetic response rather than just an intellectual one.

That is why I cannot mourn a stranger. As long as they remain a stranger I am unable to respond to their situation except in an intellectual way; until I gain some insight into a person they are just another grain of sand on the beach, indistinguishable at a glance from any other. I’m not saying that I have no feelings towards people in general – I treat them with respect and compassion. But I don’t have any curiosity about their lives; I don’t lose any sleep worrying over them.

When I see reports of some natural disaster on the news I recognise intellectually that it is a difficult, frightening situation for the people involved in it and feel a desire to help on the basis of our shared humanity. But I am unable to grieve for their dead: I did not know them. The images do not directly cause me emotional pain. I can reason about how it might feel to be involved in such a situation – it is an intellectual exercise. I need to analyse their situation, find parallels from my own experiences and consider how I felt in those circumstances to consciously develop an empathic response. But I have found that mourning – grief – is far beyond this in terms of intensity. I can feel sadness or regret  for a stranger but I can only mourn those I have a strong enough bond with.

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2 thoughts on “Mourning Strangers

  1. My immediate reaction upon hearing of the death of the Princess of Wales was one of overpowering grief. And it didn't get better for a long time. In fact, it got worse before it got better. I think it took me nearly a year before I didn't burst into tears upon seeing a picture of her.I know in the years since her death, people have remarked that the public grieving was "hysteria". I didn't think that at all. People were crying for her, for her sons, for what she represented, for her youth, her beauty … and of course for themselves. It was hard at the time to imagine the reality of life without her. I'm sure for many people who had experienced loss, particularly that of a young person, it awakened those feelings again. It was a very strange and emotional time to live through.I agree with you that certain public figures evoke that response purely because there is some kind of bond there. A positive emotional identification or association so that even though we don't know them, we do feel in some ways as if someone known to us personally has died.I know with Diana, I felt as if I had grown up with her. I'd watched her come through her divorce and was really looking forward to seeing what she'd do with her life next. Anything seemed possible. But then suddenly she was gone and that was it. I just couldn't believe it and for a time, I wondered why I couldn't just get over it. I didn't know her … yet somehow I felt I did.I would say September 11 is the first time I've had a grief response to a major public disaster involving people I'd never known. I think part of that again was the shock of it, the identification with the plight of fellow office workers who were just going about their business when someone flew a plane into their building. Possibly also that I'd seen it happen live on TV. It was grief borne of shock more than anything I think.

  2. Melbo, it's strange that you mention Diana. I nearly included her in this post as an example of somebody hugely famous with whom I didn't feel any bond. I guess it's because I couldn't find common ground between her and myself. Curiously enough I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard the news of her death, but I never felt emotional about it. I can identify with her sons' grief though because I have lost my own mother. Perhaps I might have reacted differently had I had such an experience of loss at that time. I'll never know.9/11 – I also remember exactly where I was when I heard the news and watched the pictures on the TV. I recall feelings of shock and disbelief, and I remember the distress of a work colleague who had spent time with Reuters, based in the Twin Towers.I find that my grief response, when it does come, arrives later after events have had a chance to sink in, and I have had time to reflect on things. That was the case with both my step-son and my mother – I needed time to myself to think before the feelings surfaced.

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