Grief For Strangers

Alas, poor Yourick. I hardly knew thee.

Mangled Hamlet

I’m taking a break from writing about tech today to talk about something that will impact us all at some point in our lives. And you may have guessed from the title of this post that the thing I’m going to talk about is grief, but a very specific kind of grief. The kind of grief that we sometimes feel for someone that we never knew in life.

The news of Mike Kemp’s (@clappymonkey) death started to filter out this morning and it sounds to be hitting some of my friends especially hard. I didn’t know anything about Mike before he died except for a post where he explained that his cancer had been getting worse and a diagnosis he had received shortened his prognosis considerably. We weren’t friends, heck, we weren’t even acquaintances. And that seemed to be something I share in common with some people expressing sadness for his passing. Another thing we share is a feeling of guilt for even having to deal with this emotion in the first place.

Although I don’t feel the same level of anguish for Mike’s passing as they do, I can say that I’ve felt it before. Pretty recently in fact. A year ago, I heard about Jaime Cochran’s (@ackflags) death – someone I also had no direct connection to. What I knew about her before she died was limited, but after her death I found myself in a world of emotion. I didn’t expect to feel this way for someone I didn’t know. In fact, I felt worse specifically about the fact that I didn’t know her. I meant nothing to her, and if we ever communicated at all, I don’t remember it. But there were mornings after she died where I cried my eyes out, and for the last year I’ve been trying to understand why.

Guilt

On top of my grief, I remember thinking to myself, “who the fuck are you? You have no right to grieve for this person. You didn’t even know her!” which added a weird tinge of shame to the sadness cocktail I was already gulping down. It felt unfair to her, like I was peering in through a window, voyeuristically partaking in grief that didn’t belong to me. It made me feel so much worse to think I was trespassing into a space that wasn’t meant for me. And yet, I still had all these buckets of sadness to carry around with me.

I’ve spent the better part of the last year trying to understand why I felt this way. Did Jaime reflect my own mortality back at me in a way that was too real for me to handle? Maybe. Probably. But the more I think about it, the more I realize how complex grief can be today.

It felt unfair to her, like I was peering in through a window, voyeuristically partaking in grief that didn’t belong to me.

We make friends differently today than people ever have in the history of humanity. Contacts with people can be fleeting. So much of our life’s experience as seen through the lens of social media offers us peeks into other people’s lives. You open up twitter and you can feel an ongoing proximity to someone who will never have any idea you’ve read their public thoughts. In a way, we all have these momentarily voyeuristic relationships with people. We’re all strangers, watching each other without ever having to interact directly. But despite these temporal connections, every once in a while another person’s story can hit us straight in the gut.

Trauma

They say that drone pilots burn out quickly. That they get PTSD at unexpectedly high rates. Dealing with the stark, bloody realities of the world are different now than they used to be for common people. Murders, suicides, war, poverty all pour into our everyday lives un-abstracted through conduits that are hard to turn off. It can be overwhelming, especially when we form these fleeting relationships with people.

This concept seems to hit people in the infosec community particularly hard, because we among all people have embraced these relationships so natively. In dealing with this trauma for myself over the last year, the way I’ve learned to deal with this emotion is this; it is not perverse to feel grief.

Grief is an emotion that lives so far outside of the spectrum of emotions that can be described as “voyeuristic” that we can’t hold ourselves accountable for feeling it for anyone. Taken on its own, the passing of human life is a generally sad emotion, and it’s okay to feel it for strangers. You are entitled to process that grief without the trappings of guilt or self-consciousness. It doesn’t belong to any one person more or less than anyone else.