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Grief and Social Media

On June 8, 2012, William Ferrell, the pseudonym for a friend I have chosen to write on, passed away. He and I were not terribly close friends. Playing in the marching band together for three years, we would talk about the microcosm of high school and about out political views, but we never invested further in each other’s lives. We may have spoken once in person after graduation. What I remember the most about his death is the shock of finding out about it on Facebook.

Social media has become integrated into the lives of today’s culture. Facebook estimates that as of June 2012, it has amassed over 955 million monthly active users.  With the growth of social media comes the emergence of conflict between social media and conventional social/professional norms.  Many doctors, residents, and medical students can tell you horror stories of an interview or patient interaction that had soured based on information posted on a social media page.  In regard to conflict of social media and social norms, grief becomes an important topic — especially for physicians who are often closely tied to the grieving process of the patients and families with which we interact.  Social media provides an outlet for emotional connection and support that can aid the grieving process.  It also has ability to shock and demean the grieving experience.  In finding the balance, one must ask — how ought one use social media to grieve appropriately?

It must be mentioned that rarely if ever does someone intentionally uses social media to intentionally shock or demean the grieving experience.  Rather, it often comes down to one of two cases.  In the first, a person soon learns about the death of a friend, family member, or co-worker.  Distraught, the person posts a social media message conveying respect and sadness at the loss.  In this case, it is often the speed of social media that causes shock.  Close loved ones and other family members of the deceased are not always immediately available during a loss, even in the age of technology we live in.  With the instant access of social media, one can find out all too quickly and impersonally about the death of a loved one.  The second case shows the same lack of intention to harm.  A person has recently lost someone important and turns to humor, sarcasm, or other strong language as an outlet.  This language is not understood uniformly by all who read it, leading to conflict at a time when emotions are running high.

Social media sites have thought about how to treat users who have passed away.  Hidden in the annals of social media websites’ pages are suggestions to document a desired post-mortem privacy setting.  Facebook has the option to convert pages to memorialized pages, providing family members can be verified.  Having conversations about how a loved one would like his end-of-life care to be managed now should include a discussion of management of his social media pages.

Yet, while social media use following a loss can lead to conflicts, there is a significant potential for good for both the user posting information and the users accessing it.  One of the tenets of treatment by the American Psychological Association is to share one’s feelings about the loss.  In an age where one’s personal face-to-face experience with friends and family has diminished, using online methods via social media is the natural progression.  It allows users to see how many people have been touched by the life of the individual who was lost.  Perhaps more importantly, it allows ready and continued access to both the person who has died and the people he or she came in contact with, access that was once possible only during funeral and memorial services.   It is now possible to keep in constant contact with others who truly cared about the deceased, no matter where one is physically.   What may have been found only in old photographs and mementos, memories of the deceased are now available to those grieving with just a click of a button.  Such memorials are available not just after the loss, as with the traditional obituary, but can be accessed months and years afterward, far after the six months that often defines non-complex grief.

Knowing the advantages and disadvantages of using social media in the grieving process, where does the balance lie?  As with many things in life, being mindful of the question is half the battle.  It is my personal opinion that people should feel free to share their emotional toll but be prudent in their language.  I believe that the grief process should start with face-to-face interaction, phone calls, or emails and that social media should be used around the time of obituary publication and remembrance services as a way to help people find closure.  Yet, the grief process is different for all individuals.  We as health professionals have difficulty predicting who will have difficulties with complex grief because of one important truth:  there is no one defined method for how one ought grieve.  Rather than to set a standard of what one should do, it is perhaps enough to suggest that one ought be mindful of the benefits and pitfalls of using social media to grieve.

As I write this, I pause intermittently to go on Facebook.  I find out what various friends are planning for the weekend.  I see baby pictures from eager new parents I also see a funny political advertisement that Will would have loved.  Someone has tagged him in it.  Though I will never engage him in back and forth political discussions, I will never speak to him again, it makes me happy to know that he impacted my life and someone else’s life in the same way.  I am happy that social media reminded me of my friend.

Mahesh Chandrasekhar Mahesh Chandrasekhar (1 Posts)

Contributing Writer Emeritus

University of Louisville School of Medicine

Mahesh is a member of the class of 2014 at the University of Louisville School of Medicine. Strong interest in the interplay of social and medical ethics; evidence based medicine.