When my dog, who we considered both a close friend and family member died, my brother and sister put up Facebook tributes, with pictures of him from when he was young to when they last saw him, saying how much they loved him and how this wasn’t fair. Me? I cried in my mum’s arms for a few hours, and then I crawled under my covers, turned off all the lights in my room, and slept for the whole day. No phone, no TV, no talking to anyone on the internet or in real life.
I never wrote anything about it on Facebook. For a while, I thought that if I didn’t acknowledge it so publicly then it wouldn’t be true. And on the one-month anniversary, I thought of saying something, but realised I just didn’t want to. I’m not particularly fond of even sharing good news on Facebook, so bad news is pretty much out of the question. I wanted to grieve alone, and I didn’t feel I owed it to the internet to invite them to grieve with or for me.
Why do people grieve via social media?
Several studies have looked into why people are comfortable with publicly grieving, even with people who might not have known the deceased. One reason is that it helps them not feel alone in their pain, which is a perfectly normal and human desire; being alone is scary, especially when something bad has happened. Consequently, it makes sense that one of the most popular ways to grieve is to set up a memorial page where people can share their favourite memories of the person, or “talk” directly to the person (wouldn’t that be great, if even the afterlife had Facebook?) — this helps them feel as though they still have a connection, a form of communication, with the loved one.
Additionally, it provides a semi-safe space that anyone can join and talk about how much they love and miss an individual. And sometimes it’s just much easier to write out the things that we just can’t bring ourselves to say aloud in the form of a post or comment — this isn’t a cop-out, it’s a legitimate way of dealing with pain. There’s also the argument that social media provides a safe distance that allows us to better deal with a friend’s loss, but that doesn’t mean any virtual comments or posts are any less genuine; it simply allows people the ability to better process and think out their emotions.
While I myself am not one of them, I’m always in awe of the people who have courage and strength to utilise social media to share their grief with the world. I follow a singer called Meg Hutchinson on Facebook. She lost her dog a few years back, and recently shared a post that she’d put up on the anniversary of her death. Whenever I’m having a particularly tough day missing my friend, I read Meg’s letter, and it helps me to know that I’m not alone in this pain, and I feel a sense of consolation to see that she’s put into words what I feel. When NPR’s Scott Simon live-tweeted his mother’s last days, I was glued to his Twitter feed with tears streaming down my face. When Amanda Palmer (of Dresden Dolls fame) got news that her best friend was on the verge of dying, she publicly posted (presumably almost) everything, from the moment she got the news to when he passed.
I’m grateful for the Scott Simons, the Amanda Palmers, and the Meg Hutchinsons of the world, because we do need people who will grieve publicly, no matter how difficult it may be. How many people have Simon and Palmer’s words helped through their own experiences with losing a mum or a best friend? How many other people trying to cope with losing a beloved pet have found solace in Hutchinson’s letter? Grief is universal, and these words will stick with me for a long time.
In addition to helping me realise that I could actually go 24+ hours without social media (gasp), my dog’s death also made me realise just how much we as a society have come to rely on Facebook and Twitter to keep us updated on people’s lives. When my brother and sister’s posts went up, my best friend immediately texted me to say that she was sorry and that she knew how much I’d loved my friend. She was the only person who reached out to me.
I wondered what everyone else who saw my siblings’ posts and also knew me was thinking. Did they think I didn’t put anything up because I loved him less? Were they leaving me alone because they figured I didn’t want to talk about it? Or could they only be bothered to send their love and condolences if it showed up on their Facebook feed? I don’t want to guilt-trip anyone, because I like to think I’ve got great people in my life and that they decided that if I didn’t put anything up it was because I didn’t want to talk about it (which is true). But my best friend reaching out meant the world to me. She didn’t just wait to “like” a Facebook post that I’ll probably never put up.
For a long time, a small part of me wondered if it meant I loved my friend less because I never publicly acknowledged his death. I know that’s not true, but I was scared that that’s what others thought. In some ways, that’s the rule we now follow, isn’t it? If it’s not up on Facebook, then did it ever really happen? Of course, the answer is yes, and that’s why we have to constantly remind ourselves that social media will never ever equal real life.
I now imagine all the tough times that my friends have gone through that I don’t know about, simply because I assumed there’d be some sort of post about it if it were happening. How many deaths and breakups and job losses have they cried over without posting a trace of it on their social media accounts? I love social media, and as someone who frequently moves around, it’s the best way to keep in touch with all the people I’ve met. But it doesn’t accurately reflect my life.
It’s great to share happy events: engagement news, graduation videos, baby photos. I love seeing that two of my friends are dating, or that someone’s landed their dream job. But when did we come to rely largely, if not solely, on social media to tell us important news? Why does something big have to materialise as a status update or a tweet or an Instagram photo for us to care?
So let’s try something — next time you (and I) take out our phone to scroll through our feed, instead, let’s use it to text an old friend, or ask to meet up for a coffee, or arrange a Skype date. Ask your friends how they are and what’s going on with their life. Has their partner finally proposed? Is their job still their dream job? How’s their pet? Did they get that tattoo they’ve been wanting for ages? And most importantly, ask them about those sad and ugly parts of life that can’t be made better with a witty hashtag or by slapping on an Instagram filter.
Remember that you’re not obligated to celebrate on social media, and you’re most certainly not obligated to grieve there. That rule applies to everyone, and if you’re not comfortable publicly sharing sad news, then chances are there are people you know who feel the same. On that day, I was reminded that my best friend is my best friend because out of everyone who knew my entire family and how much we all loved our dog, she was the only one who didn’t wait for my Facebook post to send her love. No amount of likes or favs will replace a single thought-out, heartfelt message.
So don’t assume that everyone will publicly share news, good or bad. Don’t wait for them to tell the world if something’s up; they won’t always. If you have the time to share a viral video, then you have the time to ask a friend how their life is going. Don’t tell someone you’ll keep in touch and not follow through. Keep in touch, say hi, check in, reach out. Always reach out.
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