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MISS CONDUCT

How can I honor someone who died even though I didn’t really know them?

Miss Conduct addresses the many different kinds of grief people can experience when hearing of a death.

A community I’m part of has been devastated by several unexpected deaths. I’ve been grateful for the opportunity to donate to wonderful organizations in lieu of sending flowers, as requested by the mourning families, whom I don’t know. Will they know of these donations, and the social media tributes? Does it matter if they know? How can I best honor meaningful acquaintances without closeness, in ways that support the mourning of those who were close?

Anonymous / Boston

Let’s start with your final question, because that’s the heart of it — the many different kinds of grief people can experience when hearing of a death. Imagine a set of concentric circles, like a target, with the deceased person in the center. The people in the inner rings are mourning for someone whose absence creates a functional loss in their lives: a spouse, a close friend, a respected and relied-upon neighbor or colleague. The bereaved will miss that person; life will have a different structure without them.

People in the middle rings grieve without necessarily suffering loss, which seems to be where you are. If any of those people had moved to Australia for the love of their life or a dream job or pure whimsy, you’d be delighted and not especially miss them. You’re mourning their death, not their absence. And sometimes we grieve for people with whom we have little relationship or don’t even personally know, but who meant something to us anyway — a fondly-remembered elementary school teacher, a relative abroad we’d always planned to visit, a favorite artist or athlete. Such grief is usually fused with nostalgia, regrets, and feelings about the passage of time or what the deceased person symbolized.

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All the different kinds of grief are real. (I’ve seen people denigrate those who mourn the deaths of celebrities or people they don’t know — and I’ve seen people pretend to be closer to the deceased than they were, to justify their feelings. None of that is good. Grief is idiosyncratic and as unpredictable as Boston weather; we shouldn’t judge our own or others’.) But as in Susan Silk’s “comfort in/dump out” Ring Theory, condolences and kind words flow from the outside in. You aren’t responsible, though, for ensuring that the inner-circle bereaved know about your donations or tributes if you don’t know them. You’re surely no more than two degrees of separation apart; the folks who know both the community and the families can relay sentiments from the outer rings.

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It’s tempting to think of this issue as a byproduct of social media and internet charity and a dozen other modern trends, but it isn’t. Since the days of handwritten correspondence — oh, heck, since cave paintings probably — people have said kind words about the dead and done good deeds in their memories, which the families of the deceased never knew of.





Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.