Grief, Real and Imagined

When planes fall from the sky, or boats sink in the seas, or trains collide — whenever the worst that can happen happens — everyone in earshot is given pause. And pause we must, over this past week’s sadness with Payne Stewart, the husband, the father and yes, the golfer. And we do. Not because we golf. Because we breathe.

Of course, the news of Mr. Stewart’s death — as with word of Princess Diana’s and John Kennedy’s — is profoundly sad. And sadness is a tie that binds each to everyone. But every grief does not belong to everyone.

At least it didn’t until very lately.

Though the terrible facts of Mr. Stewart’s death could be reported worldwide in a matter of minutes, the appetite of TV news for filler requires more than just reporting what happened. Beyond the news, we get the human drama reconstructed — live coverage of memorials and funerals, analyzed down to the warm fuzzies by a pair of newscasters.

By dressing public interest and passing curiosity in the needful garb of bereavement, TV’s talking heads have become our virtual therapists, trumping the squad of ”grief facilitators” that the President apparently keeps at the ready to dispatch to Oklahoma City or Littleton or wherever the next need arises.

The news anchors dress in dark clothes, voices are toned down, a title and a logo are created, experts from anywhere hold forth, anyone who knew anyone who knew anyone is interviewed, never-before-seen video clips appear and appear again, and again, and again and again.

The ubiquitous makeshift shrine materializes, from which updates are broadcast on the quarter-hour and citizens who felt they had to do something gab for the cameras and go their ways. Cameras zoom in on the note attached to a teddy bear or roses or balloons. Weeks later, the memorial video can be had by calling a toll-free number with one’s credit card.

Tragedy-Cam and Grief TV give couch potatoes easy access to the ”therapies” of national mourning for people we do not know, but may know of. With the proliferation of cable channels and network news magazines and special reports, no one need change a schedule, put on a suit, order flowers, bake a casserole, go to the funeral home or church, try to find something of comfort to say or endure the difficult quiet of genuine grief, when nothing can be said. Nor need anyone confront a dead body or help carry the casket or pay for anything, or perpetually care.

These mourners needn’t budge. The catharsis is user-friendly, the ”healing” home-delivered. Being there for perfect strangers has never been easier. When viewers have had enough, they can order a pizza, flick to the Movie Channel or the Home Shopping Network and wait until the helicopters locate another heartbreak to barge in on.

Whatever these viewers have experienced, it is not grief. Grief is the tax we pay on our attachments, not on our interests or diversions or our entertainments. We grieve according to the emotional capital we invest in the lives and times of others, that portion of ourselves we ante up before the cards are dealt. We only grieve our losses when we play for keeps — real love, real hate, real attachments broken.

What the news programs offer is the therapy of spectacle, excess and sedation — our humanity dulled by megadoses of rapidly changing faux emotings. And just as too much volume eventually deafens, and too much information obscures the truth, the constant coverage and analysis of funerals often obscures their deeper meanings. Soon we will not feel these things at all. We’ll only have to tune in.

What happened to Payne Stewart, while newsworthy, is not a media event. It is an existential one. What happened to his family no camera can show. And if we could not attend his funeral, we need not accept its virtual substitution. So, pause and wonder at how fragile this life is. Shake a fist in the face of God. Play a round of golf in his memory. Say a prayer. Commend his heart-sore family to Whoever is Out There. Kiss your beloved. Hug your child. Turn the TV off.

October 30, 1999
The New York Times