I’m sad to say I wasn’t familiar with the work of illustrator Jason Polan until he passed away in January, but I am grateful to have discovered it now. Once news spread on social media, I found myself sucked into a tunnel of discovery. I felt drawn not only to Jason’s work and way he saw the world, but how he was described as a person and friend. Suddenly my own life was influenced by this talented figure I'd never known, and only discovered after his life was cut short by cancer.
How is it possible to feel so touched by a stranger? I learned about his passing from friends who knew him well and turned to social media to pay tribute. There were plenty of others who shared their sadness from the news though they had never met him.
Death and everything that surrounds it is nothing we’re taught until we find ourselves navigating it. What’s appropriate? How can we care for ourselves in the process? And how do we remember people publicly?
To this day, my dad reads the obituaries in the newspaper daily and cuts out those of people he knew. But my generation hears of deaths in a very different way. We find ourselves coming face-to-face with the news through push notifications or unexpected posts by friends.
Rebecca Soffer, co-founder of the website (and book) for supporting people as they move through grief, Modern Loss, has seen how people continue to turn online for this process. “Expressing grief through social media is so interesting. It's been fascinating to see how it's evolved over the years. Even though I'm not the type of person to share personal details on my accounts, I completely respect the people who do. Because it's their way of reaching out, creating community, and asking people to bear witness to a loss that they're living with every day.”
Soffer acknowledges that some people do it for hashtag attention, but she says, “Ultimately, I believe most of us weigh in because we just need somewhere to put all of these difficult feelings, and we don't always have a supportive, we-get-it, in-person community to share in these days. Grief is meant to be communal.”
Litsa Williams, a therapist specializing in grief and co-founder of What’s Your Grief? points out, “The internet gives us new and complex ways to see and connect with lives. We see [internet strangers] as human beings and feel a deeper connection. Social media shares a real reflection of the inward experience. It may be fleeting, but does not make it less real.”
There’s a certain irony that some of the best expressions of grief come from words shared by strangers online. In a Twitter post that has been retweeted almost 20,000 times, @ElusiveJ shared: "Thinking about how we mourn artists we've never met. We don't cry because we knew them, we cry because they helped us know ourselves.”
Illustrator and author Jessie Kanelos Weiner reminds us, “With social media, it’s easy to have the idea everyone else is doing better than I am. Which isn't the case.” She goes on to point out, “There have been what feels like a lot of public deaths in the past couple years related to personal struggles and substance abuse. I'm thinking specifically of Anthony Bourdain and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. I think those in particular were wake up calls that creative people are fragile. And I myself have experienced it, too. It's a good reminder to keep an eye on each other.” [Ed. Note: If you are struggling and need support, text HOME to 741741 to access Crisis Text Line. This free service is available anytime of day or night in the U.S.]
Kanelos Weiner has also created her own illustrations of people who have inspired her and passed away—both famous and not—that she’s shared on Instagram.
Grief is a natural reaction when someone close to us passes, but what happens when we’re affected by someone who we didn’t actually know? We see glimpses of this whenever a celebrity dies. A public figure's death can trigger previous grieving or other unresolved fears we hold.
Losing anyone makes us very aware of our own place in the world. According to Williams, “Grief is always about our own mortality in some way and brings up things.” The struggle comes from the fact that we often see ourselves in the other person. The dual processing model of grief acknowledges that we’re oscillating between coping with loss and coping with day-to-day, and sometimes there’s overlap between the two. Grief is complex. She adds, “It’s hard to talk about but very real.”
Beyond celebrity, it’s still possible to feel the loss of someone who is a rockstar in your world, even if they’re not a household name. Mike Rugnetta created an episode for PBS Idea Channel that explores "Is it okay to mourn celebrity death online?" Rugnetta addresses the topic head on. "Losing a creative hero is like losing a great teacher, someone who knew things about the world you didn't but showed them to you in this inviting way that encouraged you to become yourself. I like to think that we're all capable of understanding why the loss of such an important figure might result in grief."
Soffer acknowledges, “It may feel bizarre to experience very real, very deep grief after learning about the death of someone you've never actually met. But it's totally normal. Public figures such as artists, musicians, activists, and athletes are so deeply connected to our own lives. When we think of them, we think of our own dreams and goals and how they inspired us, and of course we think about how all of those played out in our lives.” It’s not only about the person, but about the memories and associations we had with them, an event we attended, or how an artwork made us feel a lot of emotions.
Collective grief is also real and community can form around a person. According to Williams, “Even if you weren't deeply impacted by that person directly, seeing how much people you care about were impacted by them then does start to create a feeling of loss for you that maybe you didn't even know was going to be there.”
There are many ways to grieve and mourn, publicly and privately. There is far more than writing a social media post to help you process what has happened, and, of course, different tools work for different people. “We see so much creative expression in coping with loss, often we see people using the creative tools they already have and adapting them in new ways, whether it be connecting with that person, with the emotions they’re feeling, or attempting to reconstruct a world that has now fundamentally changed,” according to Williams.
Grief in Six Words is a project by the founders of What’s Your Grief? to encourage people to share their stories about grieving. It was born out of the lore that Hemingway was bet he couldn't write a six-word story. His was ultimately about grief. “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Williams explains, “Some people will say I’m not a writer at all, but something about the idea of creating a story in six words and only six words, to encapsulate something I’m feeling so deeply, felt compelling and it felt manageable. Sometimes you end up finding an outlet you didn’t know you’d connect with.”
The two founders created another spin-off site called Photo Grief which provides photographic challenges as a way of coping with grief through artistic expression. Photography became a medium co-founder Eleanor Haley turned to after her own mother died. Others will turn to art as a way to share their work without words and can be a comfort as they process it.
Coping with loss can be an excuse to try something new. Mari Andrew was a writer who took to drawing every day after a bad break up and sudden loss of her father to a heart attack. It's easy to focus on the huge following she's accrued, but for her, this artist's outlook was not about gaining followers, but rather a creative outlet to deal with her grief.
After losing my mom to cancer, I happened to see that my online friend Matt Trinetti was hosting a 100-day challenge. I accepted the challenge and chose to write about my mom for 100 days. Not only was it therapeutic, but it also helped me capture so many memories.
Even if you didn’t know the person you're grieving, you could write a letter detailing how they inspired you. It may be something you post online, or one you keep to yourself and never send. Others may turn to journaling as a way to process emotions, and for those not inclined to use words, art journaling and experimenting with different media like painting and collage is a productive form of creative expression.
A creative outlet doesn't have to be crazy or ambitious to resonate. Consider something simple you can do to honor or explore the world of the person who inspired you. It could also mean getting involved in an organization that was close to the departed.
Experts like Williams are quick to point out that grief exists on a spectrum and looks different to everyone. There’s no right or wrong way to handle it. There’s long been judgment surrounding grief, from how someone grieves to how long they grieve, along with societal pressures that can vary across different circles of people.
According to Williams, “A lot of the tension and judgment that people have towards one another comes from the fact that our individual needs are different. It's easy for someone who would never share publicly to be judgmental about those who really need that, and vice versa. It can be easy for those who really need that public display to think that others who aren't doing it are being avoidant or they're suppressing their grief, when the reality is that people just grieve differently. For some people the public is a big part of it and for others it's not."
Soffer emphasizes the importance of self-kindness and self-care when it comes to grief. “Remind yourself that there is really no ‘right’ way to grieve, as long as you aren't hurting yourself or anyone else. Don't beat yourself up for not hitting certain ‘milestones’ that society is telling you to hit; grief has no timeline whatsoever. And remember to always check in with your needs and figure out how the people in your life can support you.
“We generally do a really poor job of legitimizing and caring for the grieving in our culture, so as unfair as it sounds, it's typically up to the person moving through loss to figure out ways to care for herself and build her team. Which friends make you feel comfortable no matter what? Who can you rely on to make you feel better? Then reach out to them when you need it, because people normally want to be there for you but don't always know exactly how to and the right time to do so. And when it comes to grieving a public figure, they may not automatically assume you're that affected unless you tell them.”
Moving forward, keep reminding yourself there’s not one “right” way to grieve. Grieving could even include a field trip to Taco Bell with friends for a Jason Polan-inspired Taco Bell Drawing Club night. It doesn’t matter if you knew him or not.
Anne S. Ditmeyer is a creative coach and consultant based in Paris, France who works with clients around the world. She’s the founder of Prêt à Voyager, which explores the intersection of travel and design. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram as @pretavoyager.