The death of basketball great Kobe Bryant has sparked a discussion about how we speak about and celebrate the dead when those in memory excelled in certain areas but were also complicated. I think the discussion is one with some national lessons and so I reflect on the management of grief, public memory and respect in this week’s article.
The international media seemed to struggle with whether or how to include Bryant’s rape allegation in the discourse around his tragic death. One train of thought is that death demands us to only speak well of those who have died while the contention is that to iconize problematic individuals in death is to diminish the complaints of their victims and to shield them from their accountability for their actions.
Proponents of the first position partly use respect for the deceased’s family and respect for their loss as a reason for their position. While I agree that death is always catastrophic for the families and loved ones of the deceased, I think that using this as a means of silencing objective commentary about a person in their choices about life is highly and blatantly hypocritical.
When we talk about Jeffrey Epstein’s death we do not seem to have much regard for honouring the good things he did in his life or how his family or loved ones are coping with his loss. What we really seem to be saying is that we want to be able to erase complicated memories when we so love the deceased individuals that it would be too inconvenient to reconcile the entire memory.
I don’t see how that approach to memorializing someone is beneficial. I also do not see how it helps families to mourn. The first point is that good and bad are not finite qualities in a human being. We all, in any one given lifetime, vacillate between the two extremes. Many of us are able to regulate somewhere in the middle and some of us cause hurt and pain to others as a regular daily norm. Families know that loved ones make choices about their life and I do not believe that they should feel it reasonable to ask anyone to glorify their loved ones in memorializing them.
When the actions of a deceased have caused pain to victims, their victim’s negotiation of their passing is as paramount as the considerations about their families. They will be triggered by the passing as well. Respect for a person who is a public figure or became a public figure in death due to circumstances is not simplistic or one-sided.
In terms of the management of grief, I am always in favour of strong support mechanisms for families, victims, work mates and various people affected by the grief created by death. I feel as though we still minimize and simplify grief and some parties in the process are left out completely.
Children need particular help navigating the grief process. Not just the stage after the physical death and the disposal of the human remains but the weeks and months after where the reconciliation of the loss occurs. The reconciliation of the loss has to be at the same time, realistic and compassionate.
Thankfully, there are trained professionals who are able to set out programmes and guidelines. While I agree that death is never easy and the responses and needs in death are varied, I do not see the need to alter facts about a person’s life as a process of memorial.
Many of us seem to fix arguments or positions not based on principles but rather on how much we like the character being discussed. If we approach the most complex issues in that way, we will always end up with simplistic ways of viewing things.
Marsha Hinds is the President of the National Organisation of Women.