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Public Grief

Reprinted with permission from
"The Needs of the Dying"
by David Kessler
Harper Collins Publishers (1997)

Public Grief, although thought of as a new phenomenon, is not. From man's earliest records people gathered together to share a loss in villages and towns throughout recorded history. In modern times, with television, we are able to get to know people we have never met in a way we never thought possible. When that person dies, we feel a personal loss, even though they are not a member of our family or a close friend.

With the advent of modern media, this new type of Public Grief became widely experienced with the television coverage of the death and funeral of President John F. Kennedy. Other examples of Public Grief are the deaths of President Reagan and President Gerald Ford. We publicly have mourned Princess Dianna, JFK Jr, Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II. It is also experienced with events such as September 11 and the war in Iraq.

Seeing a funeral, coffins or a tragic event replayed on television can be helpful if one is prepared for it and it is done appropriately. If done for shock value or with an agenda it can possibly cause trauma and /or complicate the grieving process. Sometimes we revisit loss to help us understand what has happened to our loved ones and us. On anniversaries of such events as Hurricane Katrina and September 11 we may watch TV and media coverage to remember, to commemorate, to grieve and to reassure ourselves that an event and our loved ones will never be forgotten.

There is also Public Anticipatory Grief, through TV and radio, where we begin to experience grief, collectively, before the actual loss;and, sometimes the loss may not even happen, such as Baby Jessica. We were all very concerned that she would not be able to be rescued and we feared the worst;but, thankfully, she was rescued.

This type of grief is normal and many people are surprised at the deepness of emotions that we can feel for public figures that we have never actually met and situations we have never experienced ourselves. When a President dies we feel the loss of a leadership figure;sometimes a President may be our ultimate father figure. As children we are taught to look up to them and in death they remind us that "all that lives someday dies".

What we see on TV is not always what grief looks like when the cameras are not present. Jackie Kennedy chose a public image of the strong widow. That did not mean she did not cry privately. Grief is as individual as a fingerprint and as unique as each one of us is publicly and privately. Mourning is what we do externally. Grief is what we feel inside. The public image of mourning is very different than the private reality of a widow's grief. The mourning of a President assassinated in his Presidency was very different than the mourning of a President stricken with Alzheimer's. Betty Ford gave a glimpse of her grief in mourning a President who lived well into old age. Each Presidential memorial usually reflects how a President lived and how he died.

If you find yourself having strong feelings of grief for a public figure that you have known – just remember those feelings are normal, natural and perhaps as old as time itself. What you can do is find ways to externalize your grief in the form of mourning. Here are some things that you may do:

  1. If your feelings are very strong and there is a public memorial service – attend it
  2. Send a card with a short note to their loved-one
  3. Talk with other people about it
  4. Give to a charity in their name
  5. Remember what they did and what they stood for in your heart and cherish it.