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Viral Nasty Obit a Lesson in How to Better Communicate

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

We’ve all seen it by now – the obituary of a Minnesota woman that went Bubonic-Plague-level viral because her estranged children filled it with loads of family dirty laundry.

Kathleen Dehmlow’s death notice in her hometown Redwood Falls Gazette recounted not just the standard facts for such write-ups like her birthday, the date she died and her marriage and children. It also revealed she had an affair with her husband’s brother, got pregnant from the dalliance, abandoned her children (Gina and Jay), ran away to California and “will now face judgment” in the afterlife.

“She will not be missed by Gina and Jay,” the obituary concluded, “and they understand that this world is a better place without her.”

Reactions in cyberspace were exactly what reactions always are in cyberspace – loud and divided and unshakably certain that the writer’s view was the only reasonable and right one. Some crowed that this Mommie Dearest got exactly what she deserved after such abhorrent treatment of her family; others maintained the truly abhorrent behavior was Gina’s and Jay’s, for so crassly and publicly denying their mother the dignity usually given the dead.

Debating which view is most valid would lead to a bottomless pit of he said, she said, he said again and she’s not finished, either, in the comments section of this story. A far more valuable way to spend the next few paragraphs is to consider what Gina and Jay Dehmlow’s send-off for their Mom might teach us about the acidic effects of anger and bitterness in how we talk to each other in places like the comments section of this story.

Here’s a good thesis statement for this piece: Nasty words flung back and forth leave a mark, and a legacy … and not most damagingly on the target. It’s those who fling the epithets, and the slurs, and the vitriol, and the meanness who wind up saying and revealing more about themselves than their targets. And guess what? We’re all guilty of it sometimes.

We get mad when the news outlet we consider “fake” reports something about the policy or politician we support. When a cause we endorse loses a court case, or an opinion poll, winning converts to change the outcome the next time usually takes a back seat to stockpiling social media memes to spotlight how stupid and wrong and beneath contempt the folks are on the other side of the ideological aisle. It’s as if we can only find peace for ourselves by taking a piece out of the other guy.

That’s what Gina and Jay Dehmlow did when they got word that their mother had passed away at 80. It was their attempt, fueled by what I doubt not for a second was real pain, to leave a lasting impression in the minds of all who saw the obituary that its subject was a despicable human being. Hard to read their words, though – or the words of division and spite we level at each other online, day-in, day-out -- and not think of that schoolyard saying the Dehmlow children likely uttered themselves in happier times: “I’m rubber; you’re glue. Whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you.”

There is only one solvent – and that’s a good word because of the implication that it fixes a problem – strong enough to break the adhesive effect of words thrust violently at others: forgiveness. Laying down our rapiers in deference to what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature. It’s hardest to do when someone truly injures us, especially in lasting ways – as it seems almost certain Mrs. Dehmlow did to her son and daughter. It’s easier, or at least should be, when responding to the human frailty of those whose cultural profile results in their misdeeds and misstatements filling up our news feeds. Yes, Celebrity X and Politician Y shouldn’t have said or done Z, but who appointed us the rhetorical firing squad for their virtual public execution?

It’s not even forgiveness that’s required, but just a little humility, enough to admit our fingers and thumbs may not in every instance be the wisest in the land, when the only sin we need to forgive someone of is not agreeing with us in a Facebook post or a Tweet – especially when that person is a friend in life, and not just online. We could launch a cyber revolution as viral as the Dehmlow obit if we could muster just that much grace for each other more often than not.

The comments section below is a good place to test if anyone is willing to try.

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