Why do we make a spectacle of our grief? It’s a question I ask myself each time the evening news shows bereaved widows. That they are devastated is beyond doubt but why do they have to make an exhibition of their emotions? Why can’t they, instead, strive for dignity in their sorrow?
The paradox is that silent emotion, borne with restraint and courage, is far more moving than an uncontrolled display of howling loss. The widows on the news become talking points. Their behaviour provokes questions, perhaps it also elicits skepticism, but only marginally does it stoke sympathy. I stare at them bewildered, even disbelieving, and consequently, I gloss over the tragedy they’ve experienced.
In contrast, I will never forget Indira Gandhi’s picture, standing beside Rajiv, who had his arm around her, the day her youngest son Sanjay’s ashes were brought home. Even hidden behind large dark glasses you could see her face was crumpled with sorrow and loss. The effort she had made to choke back her tears was obvious. She seemed crushed, alone and miserable. My eyes filled uncontrollably. I’m sure the tens of millions who saw that picture on the front page would have felt a similar tug at their hearts.
Sometimes the simple ordinary word ‘Mummy’ can be powerfully moving. In September 1997, when Princess Diana’s coffin emerged from Kensington Palace on its last journey to Westminster Abbey, in the middle of the flowers on top was a large white card with the poignant cry ‘Mummy’. Her two sons did not need to add anything more. Later, as they walked behind her hearse, their heads bowed with grief, but stoic, brave and resolute, even hearts of stone would have wilted if not turned to water.
In either case, it was the simple signs of human frailty and the effort to control irresistible emotion that proved so moving. Conversely, it’s the exaggeration, even the dramatisation, of emotion and the unbecoming behaviour that it entails, which is so off-putting on television. I’m afraid I have to add it’s undignified. It’s demeaning. So why do we do it?
The easy answer, I suppose, is that it’s cultural. Kashmiri or Malayalee, Gujarati or Bengali, Punjabi or Bihari, we broadcast our grief. We don’t cry, we holler. In fact the Punjabis have a phrase for it. It’s called pitna. The women of the community get together and encourage a display of uncontrolled wailing. It’s a sort of manufacturing of emotion. But its not uniquely Punjabi. Other communities, I’m sure, behave similarly. In fact, I’m confident there are well known names for such behaviour in all the other Indian languages.
The real question is why does our culture require this of us? One answer that I’ve been given is that its therapeutic. It’s a way of sharing loss and also of coming-to-terms with emotion. But I’m not sure I can accept that. After all, the billions who don’t display their grief with an exhibition of sorrow and loss also come to terms with what’s happened and, eventually, get over it.
No, I suspect, hypocrisy has more to do with it. You have to prove you’re grieving to be believed. Stoic restraint is often mistaken for being uncaring and unfeeling. Worse, such behaviour leads to competitive public crying. The bereaved out-do each other to prove how much they loved the departed.
Or does the fault lie with television? Could it be that the intrusion of the camera brings forth this exaggerated response? Is it therefore an act to prove a point? Is it done for us, the viewer?
Even if it is, the root must be the fear that any other behaviour will be mistaken for cold unconcern. Thus even in our moments of dreadful loss we care unduly for what others will think and say.
That’s not just sad or pathetic, I actually find this conclusion disturbing. It suggests that we cannot be honest about ourselves. At best, we’re putting on an act for everyone else. At worst, we’re fooling ourselves.