Where once grief was kept under wraps, it now seeps into the collective consciousness via social media and public memorials. But what are the consequences of this new openness? By Sally Piper.

Private grief and public memorials

A roadside memorial to car crash victims.
A roadside memorial to car crash victims.
Credit: Luc NovoviTch / Alamy

I like to get away from the demands of life in nature. My chosen method of escape is bushwalking. I mostly walk alone. The only demands upon me then are those that I make upon myself.

I was walking on a less frequented trail recently when I came across a newly erected white cross at the side of the track. It was nestled in the elbow of a hill’s contour. The cut flowers at the cross’s base looked about two weeks dead.

The sight of this memorial pulled me up in my tracks, took me out of my reverie of birdsong, bush and dappled light. I paused for some time to consider the death that this cross symbolised. Maybe because I’m no stranger to death, having worked with the critically ill for years, I’ve witnessed the ways of it often.

There was a name on the cross – let’s say Jim. I think in pictures, so I built an image of Jim. I gave him an age (25), a face (dark regrowth on a prominent chin, the beginnings of a delta of fine lines at the corners of his eyes). I positioned him in a deathly repose (hips opposing the lie of his shoulders, face to the sky). I filled in the circumstances of his death; it was the kind that doesn’t make the news. I pictured the fear and shock of the walkers who found him. I pictured his family when the news of his death was delivered to them; easily saw their pain and sadness, having witnessed it in reality many times.

The accuracy of these mind pictures is not relevant. What is, however, is that each brought with it an incumbent emotion. I was shocked initially by that bright white cross; shocked by how it symbolised the death of someone in this place of natural and relatively isolated beauty. I felt sadness too, for the changes Jim’s absence would have delivered to those who loved him. But I also felt anger, a brief flicker of it that made my jaw tighten. Then the shameful prick of guilt followed quickly on its heels.

Grief was once a mostly faceless phenomenon in Western cultures. Unborn babies were miscarried in the morning and their empty mothers were back cooking family dinners by the evening; veterans carried the memory and pain of lost mates in silence; the sudden absence of a sibling could pass unexplained. It was all part of an unwritten doctrine that personal heartache be endured, not shared; that grief was a private matter. People spoke of the strength of those who grieved with stoicism, remarked on their courage. To do or be otherwise was considered a weakness (at best), an illness (at worst), and those who grieved in a way that made others feel uncomfortable could find themselves isolated.

Grief reaches more and more into the public domain now. Social media enables it. Memorial pages are quickly set up on social network platforms after sudden deaths, especially of young people. Yellowed and grainy photographs of loved ones long passed pop up in our newsfeeds with comments that remind us that grief never leaves the grieving, they’ve just found ways to live alongside it.

Grief is expressed publicly in other ways, too. We see it in the growing number of white “ghost” bikes that mark the site of a cyclist death beside city roads; white crosses and floral tributes appear more and more frequently on the sides of highways, at intersections, or on footpaths. Memorial seats, plaques and monuments named for the dead are increasingly located in parks, on headlands and lookouts, or other places of tranquillity and natural beauty.

In the past, sites of grief and remembrance were mostly restricted to cemeteries, crematoria, memorial walls or gardens. But with the increased frequency of these individual symbols of loss – many of which mark the actual location of a death – cemeteries in loci are created. Fences and traffic lights are the new flower-adorned tombstones; the benches we rest upon carry epitaphs; time-paused faces stare back at us from behind plastic sleeves stuck to electricity poles.

But what is the social and cultural context that allows for, perhaps even encourages, the proliferation of these public symbols of personal trauma? What do they say about us individually? What do they say about us collectively? Who do they benefit? Who do they not?

For some, these memorials function as the wail that social constraints don’t always allow. Others take comfort in knowing that the broader community shares in, or at least witnesses, their pain. There are those for whom memorials provide a spiritual connection to the actual place of a death, somewhere those grieving feel they can best communicate with the person they’ve lost. This shift away from traditional places of mourning also suggests a shift away from church and state. It is perhaps a reflection that these institutions no longer meet grieving needs or beliefs so new ones are established. Some people create memorials as a warning to others. For others, they are an act of control in otherwise uncontrollable circumstances. And there are those for whom the reasons are inexplicable, but it is something that just feels right.

But there is a flip side to these public memorials. While they may bring comfort, peace or purpose to the grieving, for others they can carry the burden of unbidden inclusion in another person’s pain. Some memorials, especially those that take on shrine-like proportions alongside highways and roads, are criticised for distracting passing drivers, putting them at risk of the same fate. Ghost bikes remind cyclists of their vulnerability, robbing some of the joy from their chosen activity. Those who seek escape from the pressures of life in places of natural beauty – people like me – are increasingly being reminded of their own mortality while there. And there are those for whom public memorials trigger painful memories of losses of their own, which they may be forced to experience each time they leave their homes.

I’ve thought a lot about the anger I felt since I came across the white cross on the trail, tried to distil it to its simplest elements, hunted for the kernel of what it might say about me. Did it mean I was an uncaring person? Heartless? Selfish? I’d like to think not, given I spent years respectfully caring for those facing death, provided them with as much dignity as possible in what were often undignified ends.

What this distillation eventually produced though is this: I was angry because a personal demand had been made on me in a public space. I had been co-opted into feeling a stranger’s grief in a place where I sought to escape any such demands. Equally, this site will always be a place of death for me now. I won’t notice the flora and fauna when I pass along this section of the trail, won’t feel nature’s comfort. I will only feel someone’s loss.

So is this a better grief for the family and friends of Jim, to know that his death has reached beyond the confines of those who knew him? Is my attention to life all the stronger for having shared something of their loss? Do I value it more, live it more?

I don’t think this or other public memorials that have similarly affected me have changed the way I live but they have at times allowed a sense of sadness to encroach on my life that wouldn’t otherwise be there. And maybe therein lies the problem: it is I who must learn to dissociate myself from another person’s sorrow, to walk or drive past and take comfort in knowing it is not mine to own.

There is no right or wrong way to mourn but more and more we are all being asked to share grief. Maybe as these memorials appear more frequently in public spaces they will be noted less, felt less, by those not associated with the loss they represent. But how does this serve the grieving then, if giving a public face to a private grief is part of their purpose?

I know that to express grief in ways that help the grieving is better than those expectations of old that said they should show quiet strength and courage. But it is worth acknowledging that there is a collateral consequence to public memorials: they can present a burden to those unrelated to the loss. And that burden can be a form of grief in itself.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 4, 2019 as "Public face of private grief".

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Sally Piper is the author of The Geography of Friendship and Grace’s Table.

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