Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

When grieving goes public

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Hundreds of mourners recently attended the funeral for Meagen Mancheese, a 16-year-old shot to death in her family's farmhouse, 20 kilometres east of the Roblin. A 17-year-old boy who apparently shot himself was also found, critically wounded, at the home but is now in stable condition in a Winnipeg hospital.

The conduct of Mancheese's family in the aftermath of the tragedy has been singular. They repeatedly asked the media to keep their distance from the funeral service. They have consistently waived off cameras and microphones. And they have regularly refused media requests for interviews.

Their refusal to package their private loss for public consumption marks them as exceptional. Maintaining that family grief should be private is, sadly, unusual in 2010. More and more frequently -- sometimes by choice, sometimes by media compulsion -- families of victims of horrific criminal acts, especially when the victims are children, grieve in public. It's now almost normal for parents or other relatives of murdered children to become talking heads, airing their loss and sorrow for all the world to see.

Often such public displays are revived at each stage of the criminal justice system -- when someone is charged, when there's a court appearance, when there's a bail hearing, when the trial begins, when it ends and, finally, when sentence is handed down. It becomes a many-chaptered saga, with media appearances by the family at each twist and turn of investigation and prosecution.

But it doesn't necessarily end there. Parents of murdered children sometimes show up on television the next time there's a murdered child of similar age or background. They become experts, trotted out to relive their tragedies, ostensibly to bring an informed perspective on child or teen homicide.

Cavalier about what they're doing so long as it makes for good copy, video or sound-bites, newsrooms sanctimoniously promote this stuff as newsworthy.

This isn't the only -- and certainly not the best -- way to honour the dead.

What happened to keeping intimate thoughts, feelings and memories private and close to the heart? Who made it near mandatory for surviving parents or relatives to revisit their trauma across the spectrum of print and electronic media? Parental grief should not be trotted out at every turn. Nor need every horrific detail be graphically re-presented or re-described. Too often the result is reporting that borders on crudity.

Lawyer and legal-thriller author John Grisham's latest bestseller, The Confession, taps into this unsettling syndrome. One of the ugliest characters in his novel is a murdered teenage girl's mother who, to the dismay of her husband, chronically and strategically flaunts her grief before the media at each twist and turn of the criminal justice system. Sure, it's fiction. But Grisham drew on real-life experiences with people like her as a board member of the Innocence Project, a U.S. organization dedicated to exonerating the wrongfully convicted, to craft an unseemly fictional composite.

With the advent of social networking websites like Facebook and Myspace, the Internet has become the other prime medium to commemorate the dead.

It's now routine to turn a deceased Facebook user's account into a memorial page that allows family and friends to post messages as part of the grieving process. Turning an existing Facebook profile into an in memoriam, or even creating one anew, is a good way to say heartfelt goodbyes. There's something soothing about sharing memories through such sites. And, over time, they appear to help family and friends to come to grips with grief and move on.

But what begins as a tribute to the deceased sometimes morphs into a platform for the survivors.

Particularly where there's been a violent or sudden death, young siblings or nieces or nephews, familiar with the tools of the blogosphere, post photos and recount memories of the deceased on Facebook that are inappropriate. Worse, they send video clips to YouTube. They upload video of parents holding photos of the dead child and even funeral footage -- complete with shots of and interviews with tear-stained mourners, including, of course, themselves.

Some of these relatives' sense of self-worth is bound up with the volume of media and Net coverage their grieving generates. They produce what are, at base, episodes of monstrous self-regard, for the widest possible public consumption.

Psychologists have coined a clinical term for posting these kinds of tasteless, unedited comments and images on the web -- "online disinhibition effect."

The syndrome's the logical product of a medium that encourages speed and emotionalism over reflection and temperance. Psychologists prefer to be value neutral about the syndrome. But that's a cop-out. Exhibiting yourself so very prominently and publicly in the face of grief -- often grief more properly the domain of others -- is shameful.

Web culture is here to stay. And online fame is now routine. But decency mandates we not upload videos and pictures of murder victims, or their family and friends, to be displayed as mass entertainment like the videos of dancing cats, drunk guinea pigs and goofy-adolescent pratfalls that find audiences of millions on the Net.

We should bear witness and render the tragically dead important, but without a media circus or over-the-top cyberspace memorializing.

Better we mirror the quiet dignity exhibited by the Mancheese family. And not confuse what's properly public with what isn't.

Douglas J. Johnston is a Winnipeg lawyer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 2, 2010 A12

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