Simon Kelner: Speed's death requires us to rethink how we mourn

This is a difficult subject, so bear with me as I tread carefully. The reaction to the terrible death of the footballer Gary Speed has given me pause for thought about public expressions of grief.

I was at a football match this week at the Emirates Stadium between Arsenal and Manchester City, and the supporters of both clubs were invited before the match to pay their respects to Speed, a man whose career took him to many places, but, as far as I know, had no connection with either of these two clubs.

We weren't asked for a minute's silence, so the fans didn't quite know what to do. At first it was silent, then applause began to cascade down from the stands, and then some fans started singing "There's only one Gary Speed" – they'd seen Swansea City supporters spontaneously, and rather movingly, strike up this song on Match of the Day and wanted to replicate it.

It was hard to know what to make of it all. The man standing next to me was bellowing his endorsement of the uniqueness of Gary Speed, even though I'm pretty sure he never touched his life, even in death. Does that make it wrong? Of course not. In this fractured, disparate world, we all want to be part of something, even if it is communal grieving for someone with whom we have no tangible connection.

It's a relatively modern phenomenon, probably traceable to Princess Diana's death, and I think it makes us, curiously, less – rather than more – compassionate. This form of ritualised grief effectively cauterises us to the deeper meanings of a particular death, and somehow belittles the feelings of those genuinely affected by a most personal of tragedies.

In the tears of the Newcastle goalkeeper Shay Given, for example, you saw the most human expression of anguish for a friend and former teammate, and for the wife and two children who have been left behind to pick up the shattered remnants of their family life. And in the withdrawal of Craig Bellamy, a colleague of Speed's in the Welsh international set-up, from Liverpool's match last Sunday, you could sense an authentic reckoning that, set beside this, football is an irrelevant pastime.

When someone in public life dies, particularly at such a young age like Speed, there is a danger of being overwhelmed by cliché and hollow sentimentality. Every time one of Speed's former clubs scored a goal, or won a match, we were invited to believe that this was a fitting tribute to him.

In some ways, of course, it was: Speed loved football and, it seems, football loved him. But surely the most fitting tribute would be less demonstrable, and more unfashionable. It would be to allow his wife and children the space to grieve privately, and to seek to understand what propels a young man to such frightening depths of emotion. This is a terrible, and terribly difficult, thing to fathom, and one which requires a long period of quiet reflection rather than a short burst of applause.