A video of a father singing to his dying newborn after his wife suddenly passed away has gone viral. Chris and Ashley Picco named their son, Lennon, for John, before he was born via emergency cesarean section, and in the short film the widower gently strums the chords to “Blackbird.” “You were only waiting for this moment to be free,” he sings. Lennon died a few days later.
After a friend of the Piccos uploaded the video to YouTube, it rocketed around social media and has been viewed more than 5 million times. So a local, personal tragedy has become something else: a story about the Internet, where moments of grief get magnified and propagated across vast distances, and strangers have to ask themselves what it means that they clicked (or didn’t). Adding to the swirl of ambivalence, a memorial website has raised more than $100,000 for Picco and his family. Churches often hold drives and bake sales for bereaved parishioners, and even Internet pages that allow broader communities to express support aren’t new. But there’s a sense of excess here, an objection, if not to the presence of the video itself, then to our relationship with it. “Wife? Dead. Baby? Dying. I wonder if this would make a good viral video,” read a representative reaction on Twitter.
The urge to document and memorialize death is as old as we are. In the 19th century, as daguerreotype technology flourished, parents commissioned portraits of their dead children to help them grieve. The physical imprints aimed to catch “the shadow ere the substance fade”—to preserve a likeness of the child until the family was ready to release his essence into the beyond. These images were often displayed prominently in middle-class homes. The cult of mourning, the idea that bereavement is one of our purest emotions, public displays of sadness—none of this stuff feels new to me, or unique to the Internet, or bad. As my colleague Hanna Rosin points out, people suffering a loss have always wanted the universe to pause and notice. “What looks exploitative on paper isn’t necessarily experienced that way by the grieving,” Rosin wrote in an email. “I remember being a young reporter at the Washington Post having to knock on doors of family of the recently murdered. I thought the families would scream at me but often they welcomed me … because it felt to them like a monumental thing had happened and it deserved to be front-page news.”
But the unease around this Internet Event doesn’t really center on the ethics of making or posting the video. There’s no indication that Picco was staging a maudlin scene—the film just (I hope) captures a spontaneous few minutes between a dad and his baby. The problem is us viewers: Why are we clicking and sharing (and giving)? Do we even understand what we see onscreen, or has Chris Picco’s tragedy just become another cheap portal to all the feels?
It’s hard to argue that the wave of financial support brought on by the video is somehow sinister. Sure, $100,000 is a lot of money and perhaps better spent elsewhere, but there are far more pernicious uses of a hundred grand than vastly improving the quality of life for a man who just lost his wife and newborn son. And while there may be some injustice in only the iPhone-documented and Facebook-approved tragedies attracting our dollars and attention—remember when the bullied bus driver received hundreds of thousands of dollars for her pain?—the solution to that injustice is pretty clearly not to declare that no one at all should get dollars or attention. (By the way: This is the same tension that many of us face when giving money to homeless people on the subway or street. Should I not give to this guy because I can’t give to everyone? I hope not.)
But it’s not really the strangers donating to Picco who are the bad guys here. It’s the voyeurs we’re truly worried about, the casual clickers ogling the wreckage before drifting on to another listicle. But what if a casual browser’s momentary engagement with Picco’s story isn’t gross, exploitative, or wrong? What if the small gleams of compassion and pity you feel for a dad you’ve never met only add to the store of compassion and pity in the world?
I didn’t actually watch the video until I had already written most of this post. I felt like I knew what I’d see, and I already had plenty of opinions on glass-bowl Internet mourning. But when I did open the clip, I heard the whirring of medical machines under the beautiful, sad Beatles song. I heard how soft Picco’s voice was compared with the incubator, and I saw the tininess of the baby in his nest of blankets and tubes. I watched it, and I felt sad. I might donate. Even if I don’t, though, I’m honored to be part of a human community where fathers love their kids and want to comfort them even when they can’t, and we are capable of appreciating that love, and showing it to our friends. I am glad that Picco wants the film out in the world and glad to add my anonymous confirmation (via YouTube viewing numbers) that his experience is important.
So yes, I cravenly clicked on the viral video of the “newly widowed father’s preemie dying, to music.” Am I the cynical one?