Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds, and Policing Public Grief

Joel Mayward

Within a day, we lost both Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds; two film icons, a daughter and mother. Many people took to social media afterwards to vent about 2016 in general, saddened by the number of prominent cultural figures who had died during the year. I also noticed a few pastoral and ministry friends who posted about the cult of celebrity in our culture, how we make a bigger deal about the losses of David Bowie, Prince, or George Michael than we might about the crisis in Syria, various terrorist attacks, or our own neighbors. Internet outrage quickly manifested as people policed others’ grief, or lack thereof.

In a social-media culture where death becomes a trending topic, how do we grieve well? Often it feels as if we need to respond immediately, joining with the chorus of tweets and posts to publicly declare our mourning. Perhaps, by doing so, we don’t feel quite as alone in our sadness; maybe we simply want to appear like we’re in tune with the social-media trends. In any case, I wonder if this tendency exists in the absence of the practice of communal lament in our culture—the outcry of the public to God in light of unjust or tragic circumstances.

In the biblical sense, lament is a particular practice of grieving. More than simple whining or wailing, lament is a spiritually rich act of sorrow, a cry to God out of urgency, desperation, anger, and hope. Lament is often articulated in poem and song, an artful anguish. Theologian Walter Brueggemann writes this about the gift of lament found in the Psalms:

The lament makes an assertion about God: that this dangerous, available God matters in every dimension of life. Where God’s dangerous availability is lost because we fail to carry on our part of the difficult conversation, where God’s vulnerability and passion are removed from our speech, we are consigned to anxiety and despair and the world as we now have it becomes absolutized.

In other words, the practice of lament recognizes that God is sovereign and good, yet our circumstances feel out of control and deficient. We practice lament to wrestle with that dissonance, as well as to seek comfort in our ever-present and always-faithful God. Without lament, we devolve into anxiety; with lament, we are free to grieve.

With lament, we are free to grieve.

So how did Jesus respond to death and tragedy? In preparation for leading my first memorial service, I did a study in the Gospels on Jesus and funerals. It turns out that every time he showed up for a funeral (including his own), that person came back to life. Alongside this resurrection reality, we see Jesus weeping at the tomb of Lazarus, a deeply human response to suffering and death. He also wept in Gethsemane anticipating his own death, inviting his closest friends to be present with him. Even with the hope of resurrection, we too are compelled to lament; this is good grief.

It’s appropriate, then, to grieve the death of any person, celebrity or otherwise. Of course, we must protect from becoming so fatigued by a barrage of tragedies that we become inured to the pain. And as we lament, it would be wise to pause and pray—particularly before we post. Do we need to rush to add our voice to the social-media fray? Have I allowed social media to make me either overly exhausted or overly jaded by the deaths of others? What would healthy lament look like in this particular public square? Perhaps we can authentically grieve without a post or a tweet.

There will be more tragedies in 2017, including the deaths of important cultural figures. So I will grieve, because Jesus wept. And I will hope, because Jesus rose from the dead.

Topics: Online, Culture At Large, Science & Technology, Arts & Leisure, Entertainment