The three stages of social media grieving for Dean Potter


It’s not hard for me to say this but I’m pretty unmoved by the death of Dean Potter. Though you wouldn’t know it if you looked at my Facebook.

By Andrew Pridgen

Upon hearing the news of free soloist/slackliner/BASE jumper Dean Potter’s final flight Sunday, I felt the lump in my stomach, but was bereft.

I wasn’t shocked by his death.

I wasn’t saddened.

He did it right. I get that. I don’t argue that.

But I’m a little tired of it.

I’m tired because in the immediate aftermath of a popular boundary pusher inevitably meeting his mortal conclusion there’s this kind of knee-jerk shout-out to him in the form of the link-sharing, #livefortoday sepia Messianic photo outpouring. And it kind of warps the whole thing.

jonesIVDean Potter was an actual person who hit the actual forest floor going close to 120 mph and writhed for a minute broken, bent and bleeding internally. But that corpulent reality isn’t what we read about, what we think about, what we share. What we do to publicly manage or, in worse cases, manufacture grief makes the whole affair less about him and more about us.

It is the three stages of social media grieving for a personality of note:

  1. The Initial Facebook salute: For your ever-patient public hanging on your every missive, copy-and-paste the most convenient Outside link and comment something trite-but-appropriate, your slightly more sophisticated form of YOLO, as if your wall is a giant roadside memorial.
  2. The Follow-up Claim: Recall an encounter (validated or not) or some special smirk or missive or video snippet of the departed that you infer you somehow had a hand in. Maybe some artisanal poetry or a charcoal drawing in his honor accompanies this suggestive second post.
  3. The Outward Inward Turn: The announcement that you’re now going to retreat from this public form and mourn him in your own (ambiguous) way. The this is bigger than Facebook so I’m going to use Facebook to shout it from the mountaintops that this is bigger than Facebook snake chasing its tail. The classic standing at the door saying you’re going to go away now waiting for someone to stop you from going. This time, I really mean it…

Maybe it’s just too much. Or maybe it’s just too predictable. I felt the same way when I read the NYT’s March cover story on free-soloist prodigy of the moment Alex Honnold. It was part everyman tutorial on climbing and it was part linkbait for when he does fall for the first and final time.

Potter had free will and well knew the end game of the risks he took. When Patagonia builds a brand off your daring and suddenly drops you after calling your greatest feat inappropriate, it’s a sign you might not be long for the activities which define you.

He knew that too.

The rest of us may never get that glorious Hans Gruber free-fall moment pawing at the void like a cat. We get breathing shallow and feeding from tubes and then darkness.

But is it fair we piggyback on the grief of Potter’s family, his girlfriend, his ex-wife…his beloved dog? The pearl stitched Yosemite climbing community that loses yet another, left with the questions of their own temporary and tangled mortality?

Are we all just reduced to rubberneckers on this road to oblivion, trying to capture a piece of someone else’s infiniteness—the soulfulness of his gaze, the spider legs of his fingers, the handsome bulge of his calves, the stomach you could scrub clean a thousand of your dirty workshirt collars clean on—and game-on spirit to keep curling those toes on the ledge one step beyond?

I think it comes down to being selfish (our actions, not his). To wanting attention for accomplishments we’re too scared to fathom much less reach for without being tethered to a metaphorical rope. He stood in a ridiculous wingsuit on Taft Point, 7,500 feet off the ground and fucking jumped, inevitably to his death.

I’m not shocked.

I’m not saddened.

I just wish there was an alternate ending. Both for Dean Potter and the rest of us.