Grieving for the Camera

A new study claims that mourning parents often seek out the media as a coping mechanism, but the method is not always therapeutic.

Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon
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Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon

Bereaved parents who find themselves in the media spotlight following the death of a child may find refuge in the experience, sometimes to the point of addiction.

The intriguing find is the result of a new study carried out in Israel, which is due to be published soon in the American journal, Political Psychology.

Dr. Udi Lebel of Sapir College near Sderot and the College of Judea and Samaria in Ariel conducted the study together with Dr. Natti Ronel of Bar-Ilan University.

"Our research wanted to establish what influence the phenomenon had of turning bereaved parents into the initiators of media coverage about their loss and their public behavior," Lebel said. "We followed three groups of bereaved parents, who lost their sons in Lebanon, in training accidents, and in terrorist attacks. In the study, we identified what is known as addiction to media exposure."

Lebel said parents will search out the media even after the cameras and microphones are no longer pointed at them.

"Bereaved parents have difficulty relinquishing their public position and this leads many of them to initiate media events, some of them provocative, so that they will remain players in the public consciousness," he said. "We termed this phenomenon 'instant celebrity' - anonymous figures who after sudden and intensive exposure are no longer on the agenda and develop symptoms fitting of any person who has been affected by a reality show."

The names of the participants in the study are confidential but there are many bereaved parents whose appearances in the media are easily remembered by he public, not necessarily in a negative way.

Lebel points to Shula Mellet, whose son Amir was killed in the "net roulette" training accident at the Hatzerim air force base in 1991 and who eventually committed suicide, as an example.

"Following her son's death, she led numerous campaigns of parents whose sons had been killed in training accidents in the Israel Defense Forces," he said. "Later on, she was active in other ways not directly connected with her personal tragedy and promoted several social initiatives in favor of greater transparency in the IDF."

Lebel also says Orna Shimoni, whose son Eyal was killed in Lebanon when two helicopters collided, killing all 73 aboard, is someone who used - and kept - the spotlight to turn tragedy into a political movement.

"After her son was killed in the helicopters disaster she became one of the leaders of the Four Mothers movement that campaigned for leaving Lebanon. She was also active in commemorating the schoolgirls murdered at Naharayim [on the Jordanian border] and more recently was involved in the fight for the return of Gilad Shalit."

Lebel says the the media obsession can end up being harmful to the parents.

"I met someone who did not return home after his media experience, even though his family needed him," he said. "He told us that his son's death had provided him with a new career and instead of putting the pieces of his family together again, he was busy flying all round the world - he had ties with the European Union and meetings with leaders. There were also parents who suddenly tried to create a non-profit organization against injustices done to citizens by the establishment, or a couple who continued in obsessive fashion to maintain connections with the media. Over a number of years, they sent letters to the editors of various newspapers and warned time and again about various commanders who they felt had been responsible for the death of their son."

According to Lebel, the media and the parent feed off each other, with anger as a major factor, and at times parents use the exposure as an alternative to dealing with the loss.

"That is to say, the anger builds the image of the bereaved parent as a public personality, and the anger also leads him in the future to work toward continuing the media exposure in the framework of which he expresses his reservations about what he identifies as the failures of this or that policy," he said. "It is clear that in this current media era we are seeing a new model of bereavement which funnels the parents toward adopting an indignant and angry personality that many times takes the place of investing their energy in the processes of personal and family healing. I am not criticizing them. They are simply a product of the culture."