Saturday is the funeral for Elijah Marsh, the Toronto toddler who, in the middle of the night last week, wandered out into the snow and died of hypothermia while his family slept.
What began as a heartbreaking local news story, however, has become a widespread cultural moment. The story was shared on social media and news outlets all over the world. Within a day of the three-year-old's death, $120,000 had been pledged to the Marsh family in an online fundraiser organized by a stranger who wanted to make sure their funeral costs were covered (his original goal, $20,000, was exceeded in a few hours). After a week, the fund was up to $173,000, and media started asking what the Marsh family planned to do with the money.
Not that it's any of our business.
Like everyone else, I was terribly sad to learn of the toddler's death. I have a son about his age, and I cried when I saw the CCTV footage of Elijah going outside in the minus-30-degree night wearing only a diaper, t-shirt and boots.
Despite this, I am also disturbed by the widespread outpouring of emotion.
I don't say this to minimize the Marsh family's grief, or to dismiss the collective feeling out of hand.
But I do think there's a troubling aspect about the way we sometimes mourn the deaths of people we have never met. When we turn these private tragedies into mass public grieving festivals, are we really "coming together as a community" and learning to "put our own lives into perspective," as people so often say? Or are we are just attempting to dress up our innate voyeurism in a convenient cloak of sympathy?
Stories like Elijah's are riveting, at least in part, because they make us feel lucky. As one Toronto dad friend of mine commented on Facebook, "Hold your children close tonight." And I did. After reading about Elijah, I held my own boy tighter and bundled him up more carefully the next morning before nursery school. Soon, though, the thought had passed. I'd moved on to compiling the grocery list, which in turn made me wonder whether that feeling I'd felt was genuine – or just a pre-packaged hit of emotion that came and went without any lasting consequences.
The truth is, I cannot claim to "feel" for the Marsh family. Not in any real sense. My interest in Elijah has less to do with how truly sympathetic I am and more, I fear, to do with my need for immediate emotional gratification. In a way, such stories are a form of grief porn. We look, we derive feelings from images and stories of genuine human experience, and we move on, feeling sated yet oddly empty at the same time.
The only difference between grief porn and the traditional kind is that we also tell our friends about it. Every day on Facebook, I'm asked to click on a "heartbreaking" bit of shareable content involving the private and tragic deaths of people I don't know and will never meet. These bits of teary click-bait are shared with heartfelt captions such as "OMG no words" and "In pieces after watching this, sooooo sad." I try not to click on them because I feel like doing so somehow trivializes the real pain these children with terminal cancer and dying mothers of infant triplets must be going through.
Sometimes I break down. Last year, I couldn't resist the BuzzFeed viral, "A Father Sings To His Dying Newborn Son After His Wife Dies Following Childbirth." The video features a young, bespectacled new dad playing Blackbird by the Beatles on acoustic guitar to a tiny newborn by the blue light of an incubator. It's been shared over three million times.
I wept when I saw it, just as I did with the closed-circuit footage of Elijah Marsh, and I felt guilty because the weeping felt good. Not happy-good, but there was pleasure in it. And why was that? Because my boy is alive and Elijah Marsh isn't. That fact made me feel, for just a second, as if I might disintegrate with pure gratitude. I was happy because what happened to someone else had not happened to me, and that is about as far from empathy as you can get.
Let's be honest about what's going on when we linger obsessively over other people's bad news. When we share this stuff, we are not just being kind. A part of us is getting off on it; it's the mediated version of slowing down to stare at a mangled car wreck on the highway.
It is the gratuitous indulgence of tangential association with tragedy. In other words, a form of mourning sickness.
I have no idea what this public experience must be like for Elijah's parents, who have behaved with extraordinary grace and openness in the face of their ordeal. They have expressed thanks for the outpouring of support, rather than a need for privacy. They've even invited the public to their son's funeral.
And I get that: How it might even be a comfort, to feel you are not alone in the darkest, most horribly surreal hour of your life.
But the truth is, all of our collective tears and Facebook shares and well-intended donations don't add up to even a single emotional fragment of what that family must be going through – and will continue to go through long after we in the general public have turned our fickle attention away. We might gawk at their tragedy, we might even feel something real about it, but it doesn't make us better people. In the end, it is not our loss to share.