How We Grieve on Social Media

In expressing support and condolences after tragedy, the distance provided by social media is extraordinarily safe, but that doesn't make the process less meaningful.

At 2:38 p.m. on September 9, 2013, Jeremy Fowler posted a picture of his family wearing bicycle helmets while standing in front of the split-rail fence of a horse corral in nowhere New Hampshire. The reflection of their washed out skin bespoke the 2.0 megapixels of Jeremy’s flip phone camera. It was a strange image to arrive on my Facebook newsfeed, a pixilated tribute to Jeremy’s father who died 48 hours earlier. It was Jeremy’s last photograph with all of family members present, a gesture of quixotic solemnity in a medium where the earnest so often do not belong.

He accompanied the picture with this status: “Yesterday my dad unexpectedly went to be with the Lord, we’re glad that he’s in a far better place than we are but we will miss him so much, plz pray for our family during this difficult time!” To date, the post has received 62 likes and 33 comments from some of his 459 friends. Most have said things like, “God be with y’all!!! We have and will continue to pray.”

Death, typically such a huge taboo, was now a subject fit for Facebook, with all its abbreviated spellings and exclamation marks.  

Commentary abounds on social media’s capacity to foster narcissism and encourage an individual to drift into a digital world where the touch of computer keys is the closest thing to human interaction. These predictable arguments inevitably end in macho injunctions to “get outside!” and “experience the world!” and “meet your neighbors!”

While this commentary goes on, the rest of the world is happy to take a dip in the pool with old Narcissus, living online in the realm of the self.

But then a friend posts that his dad died.

Suddenly, an online space typically reserved for jokes and self-promotion is soaked in the earnest rhetoric of condolence and spirituality as people request prayers and thoughts. The transition feels strange and almost inappropriate. The easy snark and sarcasm that dominates comment-section discussion is replaced by promises of remembrance, but only for a moment, as presumably, the well-wishers then return to their regularly scheduled social media programming.

The experience of watching this all unfold can be agonizing, akin to watching your parents cry for the first time. We experience the same bizarre realization that weakness and vulnerability are real and present things in people’s lives, and our capacity to respond is often limited to helpless sentences, misspelled words, and exclamation marks. We are left to write, “It is going to be okay” to someone who just lost their father. We press plastic keys down and up in a rhythmic manner as sharp letters line up before us in perfect rows. This is how we have come to talk about grief. This is how we comfort Jeremy, a college sophomore and old friend who is now fatherless.

But somehow, it helps.

“Social media can act as a social buffer or catalyst for people’s pain and loneliness. It is a cry for warmth and sympathy in an otherwise superficial and narcissistic environment,” explained Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a professor of business psychology at the University of London. “People's sympathy and ‘likes’ are genuine, not least because they recognize that the person is genuinely looking for support and help rather than the usual admiration or status approval.”

An individual’s orientation towards social media changes radically when tragedy enters the picture, altering his use of the medium by distracting his attention from his own image. This functions as an inversion of the norm.

“The key is that in critical moments people switch from ‘acting good’ (portraying an unrealistically successful digital persona) and seeking status to ‘being down’ and seeking warmth and affiliation,” Chamorro-Premuzic said. Users begin to acknowledge the greater community as something more than an affirmation indicated by a digital thumb. Focus shifts from a desire for an endorsement to a desire for support. Tragedy invites us to lay aside the “I” of social media and embrace the “we.”

At stake is the way in which we communicate about the most critical elements of human life, and if someone is comforted by the 33 likes they receive for the pixelated photo commemorating their late father, it deserves our attention.

Even so, there is some question as to whether this shift is merely a new way of expressing an old sentiment. While tragedy may well change the way we use a particular site, media psychologist Jerri Hogg thinks that social media may not have significantly changed the way that we grieve. Hogg describes social media as “just the new current tool that connects us with friends and family,” rather than a new behavior. “Is it good? Is it bad?” she asked. “No, I think it is just different. The primary drivers for the behavior haven't changed. We need to adjust to the new normal.”

Facebook has even anticipated this shift, offering detailed instructions on how a loved one’s page can be memorialized.

Yet while the experience of grief clearly changes the way we use social media, the possibility lingers that social media may also influence and mediate the nature of grief itself. Professor Garry Hare, program director for media psychology at Fielding Graduate University, argued toward this end. He praised social media for its work in “fomenting the grieving process…it sets it within the context of a community that comes together and says you are not alone. And that helps.” He suggested that social media has actually ameliorated the individual’s capacity to comfort the grieving, offering a framework conducive to the expression of sympathy.

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Joshua Andrew is a writer based in New Hampshire.

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