Examining the Grief Industrial Complex

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When everything can become a product, nothing can ever be seen as sacred. That’s the truth that lies at the heart of the grief industrial complex. 

In February 2018, Joaquin Oliver was one of 17 people shot and killed in Parkland, Florida. That same year, his parents, Patricia and Manuel Oliver went on to start the organization Change the Ref in his honor, to bring attention to gun violence and mass shootings. Familiar with some of the organizations which sprung up following the Parkland shooting, like the student-led Never Again MSD, the first time I heard of Change the Ref was on Oct. 2 when they released a video made in collaboration with McCann Health where they brought back Joaquin, or “Guac” as he was fondly called, through AI technology.  

Within hours of submitting my piece about the zombification of Breonna Taylor, I was sent that video, and at first, I saw it as its own type of zombification. It was beyond unsettling. To see this kid be brought back in a program, the movements human-like but not quite all the way there, his face ghostly, uncanny — it was deeply upsetting. 

But when I thought about it more, I thought about how it would feel to have someone you lost back, to grieve and mourn over them and then get the chance to see their face and hear their voice again, in any way possible. I thought about how far such vulnerability would lead someone, and how easy that vulnerability would be to exploit and mold for anybody who’d be so mercenary and willing.

From funeral directors in a $2 billion industry bullying you into purchasing the most expensive coffins and making you think that’s the best way to honor your loved ones, to companies that’ll give you one last chance to see your dead son, to nonprofits setting up shop in impoverished neighborhoods and using the hardships that come with poverty to justify and bolster their existence, capitalism will force you to pay for your grief.

Perhaps there’s no better example of grief mining than Shaun King, whose grifter status has been so widely reported at this point that it seems like something of a miracle that he hasn’t been run out of the proverbial town. King has long been a fixture of both Twitter and Facebook, publishing lengthy posts and threads about Black folks murdered in cold blood by the police. Always swooping in the first chance he gets, every death is its own opportunity, the Black mothers who have lost their children be damned. Never mind the immeasurable loss of an actor or the feelings of those who knew and now mourn him personally as long as Shaun can use the grief to make a case for peddling his book

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For many white liberals King’s posts have been something of a crash course, a means to absorb and digest and interminable violence inherent in the fascist American police state. However, for many Black people, especially leftists, his impact has been far more insidious. Not only has he always been a world-class grifter, demanding money for a wide range of supposedly liberatory endeavors that never seem to materialize, but he’s further become the poster child for making money (an ass-load of it) off the spectacle of Black death. Under his social media tutelage, white folks have become increasingly convinced that the best way to inspire change is to inflict upon others — especially the Black community — a flood of images depicting their own dehumanization and murder. 

At its core, Shaun King’s business model relies on using the pain and agony of Black death to inspire donations and actions, much in the same way that Joaquin Oliver’s murder is being used as a sort of totem to bring out the vote. As much as King’s activism promises that giving his many endeavors (none of which ever seem to truly manifest) will cease the onslaught of white supremacist violence, it’s images of that very violence that form the backbone of these comically diaphanous endeavors.

Ultimately, that’s what lies at the heart of the so-called grief industrial complex: the idea the profit can be drawn from a dead body, just as effectively as blood or trauma. It encourages the centering of pain as opposed to healing, cynically conflating the catharsis of a cause with the catharsis of those who now have to file into a funeral procession.

To deny that grief and loss can be a motivator for any positive change would be silly, even outright disrespectful. However, understanding the proper way to motivate that change is vital—not only to the spirit of the change itself but also to the feelings of those who are grieving. 

In the same piece as I mentioned earlier, I wrote about the idea of the zombie in Haitian folklore. While the zombie has taken a great many forms in modern culture (what season of The Walking Dead are we on? 200?), the inception of the myth stemmed from slaves fearing that, even after death, they would be denied peace, resurrected to carry out the will of their masters and their masters’ descendants for centuries. In so many ways, the grief industrial complex replicates this legendary process: resurrecting the dead to do political work, emotional work, the agony of their death replayed over and over, their memory continually repurposed. Within the grief industrial complex, the dead are merely a brand and the agony that radiates from their loss, the most potent marketing tool available. Just as Don Draper could sell cigarettes or New Coke, the grief industrial complex shamelessly trots out trauma, fear, and guilt as the best brand mascots a given idea could ever have.

Want to sell gun control? Why make arguments for the efficacy of the policy when you can use the latest AI technology to Ouija Board a murdered child back to life, his parents backing the idea that maybe their son can now have the impact he was ultimately robbed of.

Want to ostensibly tamp down disgusting police violence, and also pocket some good cash? Bombarde social media with images of victims splayed bloody in the street. It’s easier than just admitting you’re the modern equivalent of a door-to-door vacuum salesman, Shaun.

RECOMMENDED: Slavery in Life, Slavery in Death: Reckoning with the Zombification of Blackness

Want to change the world, to help our country reckon with its myriad ills and abject abuses, most of which are the result of or at least exacerbated by gleeful capitalism? Well, maybe the best way to do so is to commodify the results of those ills and abuses, to turn the pain and confusion of their victims into products in and of themselves.

When everything can become a product, nothing can ever be seen as sacred. That’s the truth that lies at the heart of the grief industrial complex. Whether it’s political action committees enticing the parents of dead children to sell the memory of that child, or standalone grifters recognizing that blood and guts and discomfort make for powerful marketing strategies, we’ve found ourselves in an era where agony is nothing more than another thing to sell, the most gruesome and most effective sales pitch.

This mindset is not only the gratuitous byproduct of a hopelessly capitalist mindset but a perversion of empathy as a path to change — unforgivably so.

In 1955, following the cruel murder of her son, Mamie Till demanded that Emmett’s body be displayed in his casket without reconstruction. The images of the damage done to him by the lynch mob who claimed his life were reprinted across newspapers — not only a rallying symbol against anti-Black violence, but the picture of a son, returned to his mother as no mother should ever have to see their son.

Looking back upon this brave, heartfelt, and heart-wrenching decision, we should see it not as some callous desire to transform violence and sorrow into advertisement, but rather as a soulful and honest demand that the grief felt by Till’s mother be selfsame felt by all those who saw her boy.

That’s what the grief industrial complex will always misunderstand, and — in so doing — ultimately pervert.

Unfortunately, in the 65 years since, grief and grift have started to share more than just their first three letters. 

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