Magazine article Newsweek

The Trouble with Virtual Grief: The Pain That So Many People Feel for JFK Jr. Should Not Be Confused with the Actual Suffering of Family and Friends

Magazine article Newsweek

The Trouble with Virtual Grief: The Pain That So Many People Feel for JFK Jr. Should Not Be Confused with the Actual Suffering of Family and Friends

Article excerpt

Even cyberspace weeps--megabyte-sized tears. "It's like they are part of my family," confides an America Online subscriber. "I am just one of millions of Americans feeling like I lost a part of myself," writes an MSNBC Web-site guest. Such sentiments permeate the virtual world, solicited in bulk by chat sites mourning the latest Kennedy death.

There is something ineffably hollow--almost vulgar--about the exercise, about this merchandising of grief. So I'm hardly surprised that the same site inviting me to pray for John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife and his sister-in-law also asks me to "sound off" and speculate, "Did hubris kill? Or just bad luck?" and to vote on the "why behind the decades of tragedies suffered by the Kennedy family."

Nonetheless, we are ennobled by the sense that, gathered around computer screens and television sets, we are somehow sharing the families' burden. Real grief, however, is much more profound and infinitely more painful than what so many Americans seem to be feeling. What we are sharing is media-orchestrated empathy, abetted by celebrity-charged curiosity, bordering on voyeurism, of the sort that kept us glued to the small screen during O. J. Simpson's Bronco ride. Few Americans are suffering through the overwhelming sense of emptiness, of a world shattering, that friends and family feel when a loved one suddenly dies.

In those cases, we usually miss the ordinary things most acutely. The shared jokes and memories; the simple, reassuring presence of a connected soul. The loss of such everyday things is deeply--almost constantly--felt during the early stages of grief. Yet most people never had those things with John Kennedy Jr., and therefore cannot miss them. What we had was the illusion of intimacy, a kind of virtual intimacy of the sort that one gains from watching a favorite performer on the silver screen. …

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