A young widowed father opening up about living with loss
‘You turn on the TV and every other story is tellin’ you somebody died.’ – Prince, Sign O’ The Times
It’s been difficult to avoid the subject of death this year; so many people we grew up with, albeit distantly, keep leaving our lives. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we respond to this kind of loss in the digital age. Early last night, I was in a bar with colleagues and clients having a conversation about how many incredibly talented public figures have died recently.
‘Prince is dead!” interrupted my colleague, Alex. It was the lead story on TMZ – the entertainment news site that I like to think knew Michael Jackson had died before he did.
It was okay though, because apparently – according to Alex at least – it wasn’t true until the BBC ran the story.
‘It’s on the BBC now,’ he confirmed a minute later. It was true then: another legend lost.
My phone started beeping with messages and flashing with social media alerts almost immediately. Anyone who knows me well understands that Prince was my Bowie. Several people offered me quite heartfelt condolences, and when I read them I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to feel. Shouldn’t those sorts of comments be reserved only for friends and family of the deceased?
The answer, I’ve now concluded is,’no’.
You see, grief is pretty democratic and you don’t choose it as much as it chooses you. It’s also quite a small word for something so big, so when I thought about how I was feeling when I heard the news I asked myself a few questions:
Am I bereft today? No.
Am I in mourning? No.
But am I grieving? Yes, I am.
I started to get my head round this last night as I sat on a roof terrace in Soho drinking a beer, smoking a cigarette and chatting to a stranger with tears running down my face.
I was grieving my childhood and the memories of the music that played incessantly throughout my family home.
I was grieving my teenage years when I first saw Prince perform live at Wembley Stadium.
I was grieving the two decades that followed and the countless times I heard and saw him again.
But most of all I was grieving the associations: the memories of my 30th birthday at the O2 when all my closest friends came to watch him with me again; the 12″ vinyl of Purple Rain that my best mate bought me once for another birthday; the wall it hung on in the last flat I shared with Desreen, after she framed it for me; the lyrics to many of his songs that suddenly meant so much more to me after her death.
I got into bed a bit drunk but woke up abruptly at 4am with a head full of thoughts and a social media feed filled with tributes. Comments, quotes, videos, playlists, tearful emojis and purple-tinted pictures.
What is this social outpouring we keep witnessing time and time again, and why do we feel the need to share? I asked myself.
The simple answer is it’s grief and yet grief is not simple. It’s not one dimensional or linear. No one person has more right to it than another. It’s not a lifestyle choice, a fad or a fashion. At worst ‘close grief’ is an overwhelming, chaotic, confusing and contradictory emotional head-fuck. ‘Distant grief’ – such as that caused by the loss of someone famous who you never met – can be a reminder of a closer loss that came before. In some cases it can even be its instigator, opening the floodgates to suppressed grief that you didn’t even realise you had bottled up.
But I’ve also started to believe that the way that social media has facilitated a new response to ‘distant grief’ can only be a good thing. Cultural stoicism and personal idiosyncrasies may leave some of us uncomfortable in wearing our hearts on our sleeves, but the comfortable remoteness offered by social media means we can certainly wear them on our feeds. And at least that means we’re accepting that it’s okay to grieve and getting some practice in for those awful times when loss gets really close.