COLUMN: Mommy's dead, Daddy's exploiting you

From across a picnic table, a father reaches out for his son’s hand. The scene is set for him to break the worst news possible to an 8-year-old. His mother has overdosed, and a shoddy cell phone camera is here to capture the newly-motherless child’s reaction.

At least, that was the scene last week in Ohio, when recovering addict Brenden Clark broke the terrible news to his son. The two minute video, which was filmed without the child’s knowledge, captures the shock and intense grief of unexpected loss.

Shortly after recording, the video was posted on Facebook by Clark and has since gained millions of views. Clark, who broke the news to his son on screen, captioned the video with a message condemning drug use and explaining that the clip was meant to motivate fellow addicts towards recovery.

Within a few hours, a grieving 8-year old, unaware he was being filmed, became the poster child for the dangers of drug addiction. While there’s no training class for how to tell your son that his mother is dead, deciding to film it is definitely not a good start.

I’ve always felt that there’s something incredibly personal about grief. It’s an emotion particularly difficult to understand because we all experience it differently. But when this heartbreaking video surfaced on my Facebook feed last week, there was one thing that I understood immediately and with conviction: I had no business witnessing this boy’s pain, and neither did the 35 million other viewers.

I commend the father’s hopes that his son’s reaction will motivate addicts toward recovery, but the video reeks of exploitation.

To film the reaction of a grief-stricken 8-year-old is a violation of privacy so intense it made me uncomfortable to even glance at the video. And the fact that his own father planned the filming and posting of the now-viral clip makes it all the more sleazy.

The image of a motherless child as a result of substance abuse is a familiar one, if only because of advertisements from anti-drug and alcohol campaigns like DARE America and Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

As with these organizations’ messages, the motivations behind Clark’s Facebook post appear to be noble. But there’s a huge difference between invoking the faceless figure of an orphaned child and actually filming the heartbreaking moment the child learns he is orphaned.

One is a polished play on the natural guilt complex — don’t abuse substances, because these are the people you leave behind — and the other is a poorly executed invasion of a very intimate grieving process.

If the idea behind the post was really to use a child’s grief to educate and motivate addicts, perhaps it would have been even more effective for Clark to interview his son once the dust had settled. At the very least, it would have been less exploitative, as it would have been on the child’s own terms.

Filmed as it was, the only thing I got from the video was the acute sense that I was violating this child’s emotional privacy.

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