It started with Diana. That sea of bouquets outside Kensington Palace, the endless press coverage, the state funeral. It was as though the nation’s heart was broken.
One of my then colleagues spent three days crying and obsessively reading every column inch written about the late Princess, while the rest of us were working round the clock to pull together a tribute issue. When I suggested that, as we were on a weekly magazine with urgent deadlines to meet, it might be helpful if she could pitch in, she looked at me with genuine horror. ‘Liz, this is the most important thing that has ever happened to our country,’ she gasped, before returning to her tear-stained clippings.
Hmm. I suspect two World Wars had the upper hand there, but I could see from her reddened eyes that there was no point in arguing.
So much for that stiff upper lip. We have become a nation of mourners, sobbing over celebrities and the high profile, crying over people we are unlikely to have even met, and writing in condolence books that we know, from experience, are likely to end up on rubbish tips.
This is of course, largely due to the media, and yes, mea culpa. Grief sells newspapers and magazines. While death may still be the final taboo, it is as though as a nation we find it easier to grieve over strangers than to mourn the everyday tragedies in the world around us. For those struggling to survive in the credit crunch, or dealing with a personal crisis, it’s probably more tolerable to focus their energy on those they have never met than to face up to what is happening in their own lives. There is always someone worse off, and as anyone who has watched an episode of Gray’s Anatomy will testify, sobbing can be incredibly cathartic.
But there is something a little distasteful about this collective outpouring of grief. The recent tragic death of David Cameron’s son, six-year-old Ivan, is a case in point.
While everyone can sympathise with the Camerons’ sadness, unless you have a disabled child or have lost a child yourself, it’s unlikely you really understand what this quietly dignified couple are feeling. Empathy is all very well, but did the death of one – seriously ill - child really deserve quite so much press coverage? Great Ormond Street and the children’s hospices around the country have hundreds of similar stories.
It is as though we want to make it our tragedy, to ‘own’ it. But the horrible truth is that it is the Camerons’ loss and theirs alone to bear, and they and their family and friends will be left with their tears and memories long after we’ve moved on to grieve for another stranger.
Wendy Richard was a very watchable actress, a trouper who bravely fought breast cancer. But I am not sure her passing warranted a full-page splash on our best-selling newspaper. And yes, I too have shed tears over Jade Goody’s rapid decline – although I have at least met her on a few occasions. I know I will be upset when she dies, not least because it’s the waste of a young life, and will leave two little boys motherless. But I can’t even remember so much collective outpouring of grief over the Twin Towers or 7/7, and that, surely, means we’re getting things out of perspective.
Maybe it’s that when there’s so much tragedy in the world, it’s easier to sob over one individual than hundreds of lost lives. But the unpalatable truth is that all around us there are disasters happening on a daily basis. The death of young men in Afghanistan and Iraq. The victims of the Australian bush fires. The countless people who weren’t lucky enough to make it into an Oscar-winning movie, doomed to a life in the Indian slums. The continued abuse and neglect of children throughout the world. Global warming. The exploitation of animals. The senseless murders of teenagers on our streets.
Those are the real tragedies. It’s time to get a grip.