October 20, 2016 | Narrative
rest in publicity
On the day of my eighth-grade graduation, I learned just how popular people get after they die.
As we lined up in height order to process into the gymnasium, I felt a shudder behind me, and by the time I turned around, one of my classmates was well into her second sob. “He died,” she shrieked, her phone clattering to the floor. “Kaelan. He’s dead.”
A shy, unremarkable seventh grader from the neighboring middle school—I managed to gather from among the ensuing chaos, questions, and tears—had, minutes ago, been swept away by a strong current while cliff-diving on the Housatonic River. The joy of our milestone was heavily undercut by harrowing updates on Twitter and our phones, as a rescue became a recovery. The next morning, Channel 5 news was somber: They’d found his body. Kaelan was dead.
From that day on, a boy from a tiny farm town, who’d kept almost exclusively to himself for most of his life, became a celebrity. The Facebook posts flooded in, almost all of my friends and classmates extolling enthusiastically that they’d only met Kaelan once at a party, but God, how he’d touched their hearts, and actually, screw it, he was their best friend in the whole world, and they would really appreciate any and all support during this time of grief. A letter in our local newspaper informed us that though the writer had never met Kaelan personally, his “great legacy” (details of which went unspecified) would impact the course of the rest of her life.
Once we were over the initial shock, the art appeared. A friend of mine tagged Kaelan in a video of some trees and waterfalls, with the caption “This reminds me of the time you said hi to me on the bus last year, miss you loads.” 400 likes, hundreds of comments expressing the writers’ truest condolences, and didn’t he touch all of our lives in some way?
The summer became a contest of who could make themselves seem to have been the closest to him in life, kept score by Facebook statuses, letters to the editor of the local paper, speeches at his funeral, and the many subsequent memorial events, dedications, and commemorations. “Kaelan was my closest and dearest friend,” wrote a classmate of mine in a poem for his funeral, who I can confirm had never met him. “Kaelan was a light in my life,” said our town’s mayor in a Channel 5 News interview, who I can’t imagine knew of Kaelan’s existence beforehand.
Members of the community held a swim meet and a cocktail party in Kaelan’s memory. “He was a great friend,” they all said at the microphones to thunderous applause. “He changed my life.” Kaelan’s family was absent from both events.
In fact, throughout the entire 10 weeks of summer, Kaelan’s parents and three sisters were nowhere to be found. I saw not a single status from Shannon or John, no long paragraphs about beautiful memories with Kaelan or how much his loss would make their hearts bleed or whatever. It seemed that their mourning was a silent and personal mourning. They did not speak at the funeral: While community members crawled from the rafters to extol their close bonds with Kaelan and how they’d truly miss him an awful lot, his parents cried silently in the back.
But it really hit me in early September, when I ducked into a bathroom at school and froze at the sight of Kaelan’s oldest sister, shrieking in physical pain, clawing at her stomach as if to dig out something hidden, banging her head against the mirror, surrounded by a group of uncomfortable girls who were clearly unsure of what to do.
True grief is not pretty. True grief is not poetic—it does not make us feel good.
Perhaps we are unable to admit to ourselves that we could be so ignorant, so cruel by action-inaction distinction, that we let a person slip through our fingers, so we retroactively welcome deceased individuals into our lives to make up for lost time. Perhaps we are unwilling to realize how inconsequential a life can be to us.
Or perhaps we will dig anywhere we can to find solvency. Perhaps we will answer the easy questions to death, to avoid having to think about the hard ones.
I just did it.
I just realized that this whole time, I’ve been doing exactly the thing they all did—using the death of a slight acquaintance to score myself Virtue Points, when I am just like them.
Maybe we cannot make art about death. Or maybe great artists can, but you and I cannot. Maybe it is a weird instinct bred into us by years and years of consumerist immersion that we are required to use what we can to gain social capital.
Maybe I am sitting here, a convenient distance from the most tragic event of some people’s lifetimes, waxing eloquent on myself, and oh how sad that an early life was taken, but look how much I learned. How insightful of me to look past the pain of a teenager’s untimely death, to ride the coattails of a tragedy for new commentary and a story to tell. How noble of me to find goodness in a terrible tragedy.
Rest in peace, Kaelan. Not that you should care at all what a random stranger like me thinks.