Yesterday a parent posted this photo (right) on Reddit with a request:
"My daughter recently passed away after a long battle in the children's hospital. Since she was in the hospital her whole life we never were able to get a photo without all her tubes. Can someone remove the tubes from this photo?"
The thread took off, and tons of people did:
Knowing how to respond to the grief of others is always difficult—especially when those others are strangers and especially when those strangers are grieving on the Internet, where people are only just beginning to figure out the digital protocol for loss.
“It’s not the nature of social media, generally, to react thoughtfully to things and think, ‘How can I really help?’” Gabrielle Birkner, a co-founder of the website Modern Loss, recently told The New York Times.
And indeed, social media-driven responses to death can range from uncomfortable—is hitting “Like” on a Facebook death announcement supportive or crassly insensitive?—to the downright cringe-worthy, like the Tumblr “Selfies at Funerals.”
But every so often, the world wide web offers up to the bereaved some small piece of atonement for its missteps. For some, it comes in the form of permanence, as Elizabeth Stoker Brueing recently wrote for The Atlantic:
"The internet lasts forever—which is usually a creepy warning, used to warn teenagers of oversharing on social media, but in this case, it facilitates mourning at its best... one can wake up at any time of the night and see the threads of online love and memory that accompany a modern death."
And for others, like this family, it comes in the form of something much more rare: crowdsourced comfort, delivered by total strangers from across a digital divide.
Selfishly, it's comforting for the rest of us, too. The longer we exist on social media, the more loss we'll all eventually live out through our computer screens. Let's hope that this, rather than funeral selfies, becomes the future norm for public grief.