Is social media the future of grief?
Traditionally if a loved one passes away; we send a sympathy card to their family, writes Sarah Seaton. But these days, in the age of social media, we see an increasing number of public Facebook messages on people's profiles for grieving friends and relatives.
Do these kinds of messages signal a positive change in the way people are dealing with grief? Or are they just making grief a lonelier place than ever?
The way we connect is evolving
You may have experienced first-hand the rise in announcements of loss on social media. You will likely see posts on friends' walls sending their best wishes. Well intentioned, but is it ideal? It's undoubtedly true that channels like Facebook and Instagram have become a digital log of our lives, so why shouldn't people's grief experiences be shared here too?
One issue with many people who offer their condolences is that it is often on their terms, not the person who is grieving. Well-wishers will often approach the bereaved and talk about their loss without asking if that's OK. Now, social media means this barrage of well-intentioned but potentially day crumbling moments can hit people from all angles, and at any time. Unlike an initial private sympathy card, people feel they can send you a DM or post on your wall whenever they want, and you have no choice but to read it.
Yet one perspective is that digital social networks help us talk more freely about grief because it's a quicker and simpler way to connect. The loneliness that people feel in their time of sorrow could be reconciled from friends DMs, heartfelt comment threads on their wall, or even helped by joining a discussion group with others who are also experiencing loss. Social media can amplify conversations – maybe our society needs this to engage better with grief?
Offering comfort in times of loss
A recent study* into the public's attitude towards communications during significant life events has shown what we genuinely think of digital messages when it comes to sensitive subjects such as grief.
• Keep It offline: While younger generations are more open to sharing private news by social media or giving an electronic message the same significance as a traditional one, 77% of those surveyed claimed they would prefer to receive hand-written cards at significant life events. There was also a marked preference for more hands-on communication in times of need, meaning that ‘no phones’ funerals may be the next trend in unplugging from the tech matrix.
• Personal touches matter: 47% of respondents claimed they valued both giving and receiving non-digital modes of communication for life events, specifically for their personal and thoughtful appearance. The more personal a condolence can be, the better for most, and anything that feels less 'off the peg' when it comes to planning a ceremony or offering a gesture will be welcomed.
It also seems that while digital condolences are convenient and swiftly done, the value of these messages is less – perceived as less personal or significant. And yet, is there a place for the casual, digital message of commiseration?
The importance of communication
Most psychologists would agree that as a society, we need to talk about death and share in our grief more readily. Many of us may wonder if social media is an acceptable way to do this.
Grief is a deeply personal and private part of our lives. It is something we often hide from those around us. Initially, after a loved one passes away, displays of emotion are expected at the funeral, then after several weeks, this is expected to subside. The flowers wilt, the cards and letters stop arriving, and individuals are expected to move on with their lives.
This fast-paced transition means, that while a considerable part of the pain people feel can be ascribed to the loss itself, it is often also accompanied by extreme loneliness.
A card with thoughtful words may work for close friends; equally, an Instagram DM from someone who doesn't know their address could be precisely what they may need at that moment. Grief is awkward, it is hard, and it is unknown, but the main thing we should remember is to connect as much as possible, in any way possible.
Grief isn't linear; it is unique to all of us. This means that what works for one person, isn't how the next person finds comfort, and we must recognise the nuances that grief experiences hold.
- Sarah Seaton is a freelance writer based in Birmingham, specialising in cultural and digital trends
- Rajapack, 1000 respondents, 2019
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