Mourning Sickness, Grief & Celebrity Deaths Explained

Updated

Over the last few decades, public grieving has grown into a large scale social activity. Celebrity deaths and tragedies can spark something called “mourning sickness.” This type of collective grief is recreational and focuses on seeking attention. Widespread media coverage, also known as “grief porn,” keeps people hooked on the story. 

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Understanding more about mourning sickness can help you learn more about how you respond to public tragedy and loss. Well-known examples of mourning sickness show how collective grief can be used to seek attention. Increasing connections across the globe have not only led to more collective grief, but also a fair share of criticisms

. Even with all this attention, there are alternatives to mourning sickness that may give you a new way to look at publicized loss. 

What Do People Mean When They Say ‘Mourning Sickness’ or ‘Grief Porn’?

Public tragedy can cause you to feel genuine grief. When you hear that your favorite musician from your teen years has suddenly died, you may feel true emotional pain over the loss. However, public grieving events become mourning sickness when your display of grief is more important than the depth of emotion. 

Grief porn is a vital part of driving mourning sickness. The inescapable media coverage following a celebrity funeral or public tragedy creates a mesmerizing scene. People feel shocked and can’t turn away from the tragedy. Media outlets show more coverage for as long as the demand lasts. The media reports these events as news, but sensationalism keeps people coming back for more.

When you get swept up in the drama of a public tragedy, you may feel some mourning sickness. It may feel satisfying to visit a makeshift memorial and lay down a teddy bear or personal note. Sharing a tragic video and adding a touching comment may reinforce your idea of how caring you are.

But are those emotional displays really about the loss or more about your self-perception? If they were more show than substance, your response might be influenced by mourning sickness.

However, not all public grieving lacks genuine emotion. Tragedy and death can leave you feeling helpless and generally upset. Without a better outlet for your emotions, you may feel more comfortable sharing your grief with everyone else. 

Sharing collective grief with others may give you the chance to grieve disenfranchised or private losses. Grieving with others can also make grief a more everyday topic, rather than something reserved for funerals.

Where does it come from?

The term “mourning sickness” was coined after the 1996 school massacre in Dunblane, Scotland. A man walked onto the school grounds and shot 16 children and a teacher before killing himself. The shock of this tragedy caused a mass outpouring of public grief. 

Multiple tributes, flowers, and cards came in from people all over the world. The scale of public mourning only grew as the media continued its ongoing coverage and follow-up stories. 

Examples of Mourning Sickness

These well-known tragedies all have an element of mourning sickness to them. The events are famous for both the loss and the public reaction.

Dunblane Massacre

The Dunblane school massacre happened at a time when 24-hour news coverage was just becoming established. The act of violence was shocking and senseless. The public grief response also became its own story.

Princess Diana

Few events in history have prompted a public display of grief like the tragic death of Princess Diana from a high-speed car crash in 1997.

Teddy bears, flowers, and personal notes piled up at impromptu memorials. Millions of people watched the funeral on TV.

The events of 9/11

The events of 9/11 prompted a public grief response on a global scale. Instead of teddy bears and flowers, hundreds of photos and notes lined the streets near the ruins of the World Trade Center.

Disturbing images and videos were broadcast day and night all around the world as reporters flew in from every corner to cover the aftermath.

Social sharing of a non-celebrity tragedy

Social media is full of videos, images, and soundbites of tragic events. Since nearly everyone has cell phones, people can easily capture these moments and share them with the world. Websites create galleries of selfies taken moments before death.

Videos show car crashes, sporting accidents, and natural disasters. As haunting as these images and videos may be, their popularity can mean strong website traffic for advertisers. 

Any controversial death

Suicide, drug overdose, and murder all create shocking headlines. The nature of 24-hour news means that any controversial death will be prioritized, especially for a celebrity.

The storyline gets stretched with celebrity reactions and family updates. This kind of coverage can be hard to escape for weeks or months.

Criticisms of Grief Porn or Mourning Sickness

One criticism of mourning sickness is how media outlets exploit human emotions to profit off of tragedy. Another criticism is the lack of sincerity by those who express their grief. Learn about more sincere ways you can cope with a publicized loss or death to avoid mourning sickness.

Mourning sickness as phony emotion

According to author Patrick West in his book, Conspicuous Compassion, people who react with mourning sickness “want to be seen displaying compassion because they want to be loved themselves.” These individuals display ribbons, bring teddy bears to memorials, and cry in public. West argues that none of these actions do anything to help people directly affected by the loss. 

A review of West’s book on the BBC News website further discussed West’s thoughts on the mourning sickness phenomenon. He said that people were taking part in “manufactured emotion.” Instead, he urged people to “go out and do some real good.”

West called mourning sickness a “substitute for religion” for some people. Typical public mourning rituals give these people something to do with their feelings. They portray themselves as caring and compassionate, but the sentiment can also be phony and self-serving.

Alternatives to Mourning Sickness 

Grief is personal and you may want to acknowledge the death of someone you don’t know, like a homicide victim or a celebrity. Your emotional reaction is valid and personal to you. But when you cope with this loss, consider whether your actions could be more about getting attention than a true expression of grief.

When you share an article or video about a publicized death, your contribution can either add meaning or be self-serving. Alternatives to mourning sickness can help reduce the attention on yourself and enhance the human reality of the loss. 

Act in a meaningful way without seeking attention

It’s normal to feel some genuine grief over a well-known death or tragedy. Instead of adding to the sensationalism, search for a way to honor the loss privately. Doing something for others is a reliable method for distracting yourself from emotion and lifting your spirits.

Channel your emotional energy into something meaningful, and challenge yourself to do it without gaining personal attention. Be silently generous to a neighbor. Write your thoughts in a journal. Find a friend or family member with a real need and step up to help them.

Reflect on the loss and what it means to you

When you see a video or read an article about a tragic loss, take your time to understand the situation. Instead of socially sharing or commenting right away, take a moment to consider the human part of the story. Think about how the loss affects friends, family, and their community. 

Think about how you relate to their situation or what drew you to them. If you have memories of a celebrity, remind yourself of why you like or appreciate what they did in their lifetime. This reflection may feel uncomfortable, but it can help you see the loss in a more personal way. 

Act on what you appreciate about the loss

Loss can be a strong motivator for action. If you were moved by a tragic natural disaster or a sudden celebrity death, think of a way you can take action. 

  • When a musician you love dies, listen to their music, and share your appreciation with someone else. 
  • Donate or give time to a charity related to the loss: Red Cross, Stroke Foundation, or local charities.
  • Use the loss as a reason to get more comfortable talking about death and grieving with others.

Mourning Sickness and Public Grief 

The internet and 24-hour news coverage have allowed mourning sickness and grief porn to grow in the last few decades.

Public tragedy is part of our society, and media coverage won’t back off anytime soon. However, by understanding more about mourning sickness, you can also find thoughtful and meaningful ways to cope no matter what’s on the news. 


Sources

  1. “Chapter 1.” Conspicuous Compassion, Civitas, www.civitas.org.uk/pdf/cs34-1.pdf
  2. Jackson, Debra, and Usher, Kim. “Understanding expressions of public grief: ‘Mourning sickness’, ‘grief‐lite’, or something more?”   International Journal of Mental Health Nursing, April 2, 2015 onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/inm.12127
  3. Matusitz, Jonathan. Terrorism and Communication, Sage Publications, Google Books, 2013.
  4. “Mourning Sickness is a Religion.” BBC News, February 23, 2004, news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/3512447.stm
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