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Kennedy School Review

Topic / Media

In Defense of Grief: Sorrow in the Digital Age


In the span of three days this past March, bombs ripped through daily life in Istanbul and Brussels. Police flooded Istiklal Street in Istanbul, a famous pedestrian stretch usually humming with shoppers. Helicopters circled overhead, citizens scattered in terror, and yellow tape fluttered across the street. Five people were killed and close to forty injured. Only days later, bombs hit Brussels’ airport and a metro stop. People streamed out of Zaventem Airport’s departure hall, smoke billowing behind them. What should have been a sleepy commute downtown was shattered. Thirty-one dead, scores injured. Both cities struck by senseless, stunning losses.

In a pattern seen after the fall attacks in Paris, Western online commentators sharply criticized those only expressing grief for Brussels, accusing them of Western favoritism. This trend has persisted following the summer’s devastating attacks in Dhaka, Baghdad, Paris, Nice, Kabul, and others. Critics demand more balanced public grief between Western and non-Western countries.

The senselessness of life lost is equal in all places. Grief is immeasurable. So why do we persist in weighing the grief of others?

Last fall, I was in disbelief as the Paris attacks unfolded. The Stade de France rocked with explosions instead of cheers. Restaurants echoed with screams, not conversations. As an expat who grew up outside Paris, I listened numbly to French newscasters reporting in tense, clipped tones. My childhood home was under attack. Uncertainty and fear swept the city—and swept me, miles away in Boston.

In the following days, a corner of the Internet was engulfed by pain, confusion, and solidarity. French and non-French alike expressed their anguish on social media. But then came commentators blindsiding our grief. The common message: that it was wrong and shortsighted to grieve openly for Paris and not Beirut or other sites of recent attacks. Several of my Facebook friends quoted from The Atlantic that “there is a troubling tribal, or racial, component: people tend to perk up when they see themselves in the victims.” On Twitter, one user tweeted “Dear Facebook, nice French flag overlay. But how do I change my profile picture to show solidarity with the people of Beirut?” A speaker in one of my classes, visiting from Afghanistan, impatiently told us “these attacks happen daily where I live.”

These accusatory statements hit me painfully as I grappled with a sense of loss and confusion—as I grieved. I scrolled through my Facebook newsfeed and saw both support for France and criticism of that support. Grief singularly expressed for Paris was equated with not caring for victims in other countries. Guilt struck me. Was I a bad person? In feeling sorrow for Paris, was I, and others, callously ignoring the plight of victims elsewhere?

The New York Times terms the difference in Western sympathy for events—illustrated by significant variation in the number of government statements, Facebook posts and live updates—as the “compassion gap.” Time magazine similarly notes, “Whatever the reasons…for the disparity of global reaction, the message that emerges…is that some lives matter more than others.”

There may be moral merit to this argument. But for those shaken and grieving, there is no practical merit.

Morally, the horrific violence of all attacks absolutely calls for inclusive empathy. I recognize and welcome the calls for a wider perspective that spans national borders, Western and non-Western countries. But practically, such demands come too early. Both appeals and scathing descriptions, like The Independent’s prompt derision of Facebook users’ French flags as “paint-by-numbers solidarity,” miss a beat. Instead of encouraging greater empathy, the knee-jerk immediacy provokes guilt and distracts from the actual events. It turns into what The Atlantic describes as “grief policing,” rather than a meaningful move to reflection.

The critics ignore initial, raw grief. Although social media is often used to curate personal image, it is also a modern-day platform for collective grieving. Professor Chamorro-Premuzic at the University of London writes that “social media can act as a social buffer or catalyst for people’s pain …sympathy and ‘likes’ are genuine [and seek] support and help rather than the usual admiration or status approval.” Yes, bandwagoners are out there, but recognize that your Facebook newsfeed is also a legitimate place for real expressions of grief.

So before judging those grieving, wait. Let people reel and react to the immediate aftermath. No scientific timeline exists, but within a week I, for one, wanted to step back, consider the event’s wider context and grapple with hard questions. I wanted to make some sense of the violence.  Reactions to these tragedies will invariably differ.  Some will empathize more deeply with victims of other attacks, such as the 200 Belgians who participated in a vigil for Baghdad’s victims. Others will interpret events with a hostile mindset, as illustrated by the xenophobic burkini furor in France. Either way, there is potential to push for wider understanding, but to be productive, those conversations need to be thoughtfully timed. It is in the space after initial grief—once shock has faded and events start sinking in —that those grieving could be engaged in debate. In the meantime, commentators should pause before making hasty assumptions about people’s expressions of sorrow.

Put simply: give grief space.


Lauren Viehbacher recently graduated with a Master in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School. She is now a Project Manager at the City of Boston’s Department of Innovation and Technology.  She was previously a management consultant at IMS Consulting Group, based in Shanghai, China, and a Project Director and Vice President of Marketing at one of Shanghai’s largest volunteer organizations. 




Photo Credit: Sean MacEntee via Flickr.