Is grief ever an appropriate communication tool?

‘It was the moment that Trump became President’, so ran some of the commentary after the US President addressed Congress and paid tribute to Ryan Owens, the Navy Seal who died on a raid in Yeman.

While Trump basked in the applause of Congress, Ryan’s widow, Carryn Owens, broke down and shared, on international media, the profound intimacy of deep grief.

I don’t know how President Trump felt at that moment, as a husband and a father you would hope that he felt a sense of genuine compassion and regret, certainly his press office have said that Carryn Owens was closely involved in all the planning for the speech and they have stressed they tried to shield her and her children as much as they could.

What struck me was that Ryan Owens only died about six weeks ago. His father had refused to meet President Trump when Ryan’s body was repatriated and yet somehow his widow had been persuaded to attend Congress and was placed in a position where her grief became political currency.

I don’t know Carryn Owens and in time she may come to regard this as a cathartic moment, a tribute to her husband, I hope she does.

However, as many of us know, grief is a hugely challenging process and deeply personal and it has lasting impact. How you react and what you do matters and you need to know that other people have your back.

So on that basis is grief ever an appropriate communication tool?

I think sometimes it is. Charities like Oxfam, Save the Children and Comic Relief are very effective at using grief to drive fundraising, action and assistance for those in need. They showcase horrific situations in a way that drives positive change. But the images they capture and use are edited.

Equally Cancer Research and MacMillan have used interviews and videos with cancer sufferers to drive messages around screening, support and research funding. However, the people involved speak for themselves, are in control of the message and (presumably) buy into the process.

Police services also regularly use grieving and distraught relatives to launch appeals for missing persons or for information in the case of murder and disappearance. Raw emotion draws an instant response but the people involved are making their own appeals for assistance in their own voice.

So on that basis using grief to raise money for charitable causes, drive behaviour change, cut accident rates and encourage people to check their bodies and manage their health is an appropriate communication tool and can be very powerful.

But as a communicator you have a huge, human duty of care to the person who is sharing their soul.

You cannot just put them on a stage and then watch to see what happens, you have to look after them and ensure they are in control of what is said and how it is delivered.

I hope Carryn Owens looks back on the Congressional speech as a moment when she gained some healing and come control but I couldn’t help notice how alone she was in that hall and how little empowerment she had in the telling of her own story.

Surrounded by hundreds of people but with no one to hold. She clasped her hands together and looked to the sky.

It was an image that reminded me of medieval paintings of religious martyrs.

I hope she has not been sacrificed to the Gods of popular opinion and I hope she finds peace and happiness in the future. As communicators, if we are using grief to make a point then we need to make sure it’s a point that really matters, that the grieving person is in total control and we need to show an extraordinary duty of care.


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