April 12, 2013

Grief in the time of Facebook

Social networking provides opportunities for both insensitive and uplifting reactions to tragedy.

My grandfather died about a month ago. It was expected: Having been in a state of general decline for years, he went into the hospital with pneumonia, they moved him to hospice care, and he died a couple of days later. Though it was sad, he had a good death at the age of 93, surrounded by children and grandchildren.

Since I’m a sociology major, there is a small part of my brain that always wants to analyze my current social situation. That part of me, strangely distant and analytical, asked, “How are my relatives expressing their grief? How do I express my grief and to whom do I do it?”

Because I was physically separated from the rest of my family, one of the most striking things that I noticed was the pervasive use of Facebook as a vehicle to remember, mourn, and distribute information. Looking back on the deaths of people my own age, I found that its presence was even stronger. People of our generation talk about everything on Facebook, so there is no reason for death to be any different.

As a place of collective grief, Facebook has a lot to offer, yet it is highly problematic. While the social network convenes a larger community after a death than was previously possible, it also represents a loss of information control for the deceased’s family. Once a few people know about what has happened, the information quickly spreads. Friends, non-nuclear family, and acquaintances of the deceased are more likely to find out about the death from their newsfeed than through a phone call or other personal communication.

I first got the inkling that something was wrong with my grandfather when one of my relatives posted a video dedicated to him. I felt a vague sense of unease. Surely someone would have told me if something were wrong? He must be fine. A couple of hours later my mother e–mailed to tell me that my grandfather had been placed in hospice care.

At around the same time that my grandfather died, one of my friends’ friends from back home died. He found out about her death when he saw someone post an RIP message on her Facebook wall. Left with little information, he had to piece together what had happened and call close friends so that they did not find out in the same terrible way. He was clearly distressed by the experience. I cannot say whether hearing the news from someone personally makes grief easier to bear, but it cannot be better to be shocked, without information, and alone.

I have a picture in my head of what finding out about death should look like—an image probably garnered from movies and books. In it, a parent or other relative comes to you and tearfully tells you the news. As you break into tears, he or she pulls you into a hug and says that the deceased “would have wanted you to keep going.” This image, though itself often far from reality (after all, my mother e–mailed me about my grandfather’s death) is probably what makes me averse to Facebook as a bearer of bad news. It feels inherently impersonal, a wide net cast over friends and friends of friends. Facebook also lacks a certain gravitas: How can the same medium that is good for sharing pictures of cats be good for mourning? It lacks the ritual and seriousness that I associate with death.

But that doesn’t mean that there is no ritual to Facebook, or that Facebook does not fulfill an emotional need for the grief-stricken. One has only to examine the personal messages left on the walls of the dead to be reminded of roadside memorials, letters placed at graves, or any number of other mourning rituals. The act of leaving or reading such messages can be cathartic. When I talked to the same friend a couple of weeks later, he said Facebook had allowed people from across the country to come together and support each other with the knowledge that others are in the same boat. Without the Internet, many of them wouldn’t have learned of the death for months.

Clearly, Facebook can lead to insensitivity in tragic situations. But I also hope that it can facilitate greater communication. As someone who is usually far from home, watching my relatives post about their feelings is the closest I get to being there. And being there is something I don’t want to miss.

Maya Fraser is a third-year in the College majoring in sociology.