Grief is a beautiful testament to someone we’ve loved, with whom we’ve built a relationship, and who holds a special place in our memories. But what about those we’ve never met?
Is it possible to grieve someone we don’t know?
The answer is yes.
In fact, this is more common than one would think. On a large scale, we need only look at celebrities and people of influence, and we will see this truth. How sad was the passing of Robin Williams? Here was a man who brought so much joy to the world. And yet, the 400 million plus Americans who make up this country never knew him. Yet did that prevent us from mourning his loss? Of course not. We not only grieved him in our own way, but we grieved him collectively as well.
Not everyone understands how it’s possible to mourn a loss that you had no relationship with, though. I remember some years ago after the passing of Chris Cornell, lead singer of Soundgarden, being asked how I could be so upset since I didn’t even know him. I was surprised by the question, confused by why it’d be so difficult to understand. Yet I suddenly realized that not everyone gets grief’s complexity and how far its reach can go.
“He represented so many things to me, as well as for many others,” I said. “He spoke about the beauty in darkness. His lyrics touched and inspired me. And his music shined like a beacon during some of the hardest and darkest times of my life. The person with whom I shared many moments listening to such songs also died the same way Chris did. So, though I never knew him personally, he lived through his work. And because of that, I had a relationship with him in some distant sort of way.”
It isn’t just celebrities and public figures we grieve. This happens within our own families too.
Some families are comfortable talking about death and can openly keep the deceased’s presence alive in a myriad of ways. For others, however, death is something uncomfortable, scary, and should be avoided at all costs, making getting to know someone who’s passed difficult, forcing the people who mourn them to feel isolated.
My daughter was in utero when her father died. Today, even though she’s never met him, she does in fact grieve him. She grieves him through the stories she hears. Through pictures and videos. Through his beloved book collection, which I have displayed. She grieves him while others tell her how much he lives on in her. And while witnessing her sister and her friends spend time with their fathers.
Yet, though she may grieve him, I also seek to offer her endless opportunities to get to know who he was, begging the question: Is it better to have lost and feel no grief, for you never knew what you’ve lost? Or better to know, and thus grieve, because you recognize such greatness in that loss?
Grieving someone we’ve never met is both grieving an idea we have of a person and accepting that no matter how much we try to know them, we simply never will.
All we will ever be able to do is know them vicariously.
This said, bringing the deceased person’s memory to life can be productive and healthy. Ask questions. Talk about them. Look at pictures. Play videos and look through albums. Learn what their greatest achievements and proudest moments were. Learn about their greatest obstacles and how they overcame them.
Even if you never met them and wish you had, don’t let their passing prevent you from building your own unique relationship with them. And if you were someone who did know them, don’t let their passing stop you from sharing with others what made them great.