On respecting the acute grief after someone has passed

Our colleague, Dr. Jon Tennant, passed away in a horrible motorbike accident on Bali on April 9th. He was going to turn 32 in May. Jon was a very passionate and loud proponent of open science and, despite his young age, he had already managed to make more impact in this area than most of us ever will.

Because of the major impact he did, he became a rather famous and public figure among academics and the open science community.

The last time I met Jon was at our academic coworking space on Bali in early December last year, 2019. Jon had recently arrived and I was preparing for returning to Sweden after 4 years on Bali. We wanted to make sure to meet before I left. The Jon I met that day was a vulnerable young man preoccupied by difficult thoughts and feelings following the public bullying he recently had experienced related to a very vague statement published by an open science organisation he had previously worked with. Jon had arrived Bali with the aim to take some time off while trying to recover from these events.

I know we are many wondering if things would have been different if it hadn’t been for last year’s bullying on Twitter. The question is asked in private, between friends and colleagues. Whispers. Out of respect for his family and close friends who are still in a state of shock, struggling to take it in, struggling to manage all the terrible logistics involved in getting a deceased loved one back home from abroad. Such logistics are difficult enough in ordinary times. If you haven’t been in the situation yourself you may think that embassies and foreign departments will do much of the work for you, doing everything to bring your loved one back home, getting you the information needed for each step, etc. That is often not true. The burden of the logistics is on the family. The logistics may be extra confusing and challenging when it regards repatriation from a developing country. And this is during normal circumstances. Adding the current travel restrictions and increased number of deaths around the world due to the corona virus doesn’t make the process any easier.

It is therefore with great sorrow I’ve noticed that a few people on Twitter are bringing up the accusations again. It’s not about the fact that it’s brought up at all as much as it is about the timing. Because the target is no longer Jon. Jon is no longer with us, he will never read anything of what is written. The target now is the family. And while most of us keep silent, out of respect for the family, hoping to avoid giving attention to the inappropriate tweets, his family members are alone facing them, replying to the tweets. In a time when they should be allowed the peace to withdraw and mourn.

So what can we do? How to show that we don’t support the inappropriate tweets while at the same time avoiding starting a counterproductive public storm? Am I unintentionally initiating the latter by writing this post? I wish I knew and I wish I could control the outcome. I really, really hope I don’t make anything worse by writing this post. Silence can be truly devastating. But so can speech.

That said, I’ve obviously come to the conclusion that I believe it’s better to write this post than to refrain. So here are my thoughts on how to handle tweets (and any other comments, posts, etc that may come up) that bring up accusations against Jon during this sensitive time:

  • Don’t retweet, comment or react on negative tweets on Twitter, regardless of whether or not you support the tweet / poster. Twitter is a double-edged sword that is impossible to manage properly even for the most skilled social media expert. A single tweet can rapidly go viral in minutes, out of context and beyond the poster’s control. The original tweet can be deleted by the poster, but it quickly gets too late for damage control because people are impressively quick with screenshots and subtweets. It should also be noted that Twitter rarely is a forum for constructive conversations. Its short format is perfect for creating misunderstandings and hostility. Last year we created a public forum for constructive dialogue without word limits on science and academia. Here we try to create a norm of always assuming good intent. You’re always warmly welcome to in this forum bring up any topic you wish to have a meaningful and mindful conversation about.
  • Even if you’re supporting the poster of an accusatory tweet, it should not be important to get the last word in this acute state of grief. Please allow those in severe grief to get the last word. There is a time for everything. If you want to show the poster your support, maybe you could instead write them a private message? Because right now this is not about Jon, it’s about the family and his close friends. If you personally know any of the posters of accusatory tweets, maybe you could ask them kindly to wait a bit with bringing these things up again? Allowing some time to pass.
  • If you want to publicly show your support for Jon or the family, related to these issues, maybe it would be preferable to use a moderated space such as IGDORE’s forum. Or maybe write a blog post that you share publicly, but not on Twitter?

Following my own suggestions above, I will not share this blog post on Twitter, unless someone later convinces me of otherwise. I want to be very clear on the fact that I don’t know what the right thing to do is. I just find the tweets very inappropriate, in particular the timing, and I want to take a clear public stand against them in order to not leave the family members publicly alone with it, although I’m sure they receive lots of private support.

Be careful with yourself and others, okay? Please be kind.

 

3 comments

  1. Thank you for that. I’ve been so angry about the posts on twitter, most by far from people who never knew Jon, never even interacted with him or the people he is said to have harmed. So much venom from complete strangers largely ignorant of lived realities. Jon was my friend. I had doubts early on but they quickly dissipated through honest, candid conversations. What I found was a person, a deeply kind person, tangled in a web of social pressures that damage us all. Jon touched my heart, inspired me deeply to continue fighting the good fight when I was on the verge of collapsing. He helped me remember that I too had a vision, a vision we happened to share, for a more compassionate human future, and that that vision was worth fighting for. I will miss him and mourn his loss for as long as I live.

  2. I always feel like I’m butting in but can I comment? Honestly, from my perspective, and I think Sarah’s too (Jons younger sister), it helps to know we aren’t alone.
    Jons parents don’t do social media so they actually are not very aware of all of this, although his aunt and grandparents are, but they all knew he went through a horrendous amount of bullying. I think people felt quite helpless-what can you do in the face of such anonymous misconduct and anger?
    I personally feel a lot of anger ontop of grief, as I think a lot of people do now. And I refuse to sit in a place of thinking things won’t change, or that because this is so big nothing can be done. Things can be done but not by one person, and it may not be immediate.

    Kindness helps, and talking helps. I really care what you all think about the situation and people writing and voicing their thoughts and displeasure is helpful. Please don’t stay silent. If you care please be involved. Jon relies on you all and trusted you, so I do too.

    I have no intention of walking away from holding people accountable, and I definitely cannot do that alone.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s