When grief meets social media: Do Facebook and Instagram help or hinder mourning?

Over the past year, users of platforms like Facebook and Instagram have seemingly begun to utilize the sites for a markedly different purpose than self-reported perfection—truth. Madison O’Halloran’s suicide, chronicled in a piece in ESPN, drew the world’s attention to the gaping divide between real life and fiction on Instagram. Blogger Essena O’Neill repurposed her Instagram account to narrate her trails as a product-placement model. High school students created “Finstagram,” or “Fake Instagram” as a place to post unfiltered, unflattering, realistic images of themselves.

Loss, in particular, got a lot of airtime on platforms like Facebook. Recently, Heather McManamy gained a lot of attention for the charming and emotionally stirring letter she had her husband publish on Facebook after her death that soon went viral. Similarly, Sheryl Sandberg went determinedly public after the loss of her husband, using Facebook to send a message to her friends and followers.

“I shared how to talk to me and how I was feeling [and] people started talking to me more openly,” Sandberg said of her decision. “The support of strangers and our friends made a huge difference. I always loved Facebook’s mission, but now I feel even closer to it in, I think, a much deeper and more profound way.”

It is easy to side with Sandberg—the use of social media platforms to express yourself and connect with others during grief seems, overall, like a positive thing. Yet while it’s promising that sites like Facebook and Instagram offer a podium through which one can speak about their loss, their existence and ever presence in our lives also creates an implicit pressure to do so, especially for teenagers who have spent the majority of their adolescence on social media.

Licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Kelly Theis argues that oftentimes, for teens, the site can feel more like a tether than a release when grieving–their online profiles demand tending to. “How are you going to be truly grieving and attending to what your needs are in a time of mourning if you’re also very focused on ‘What am I going to make sure I tell people? What’s my message going to be?’” Theis says. “It keeps them, probably in some cases, of doing the work they need to do [to recover].”

Deaton Jones, 25, Director of Client Experience at 305 Fitness and founder of the Columbia University branch of Actively Moving Forward, a nonprofit organization “dedicated to supporting young adults grieving the illness or death of a loved one,” agrees with this burden of an external self. During his grieving process, he says he saw Facebook as yet another place for him to have to navigate the relationship between his grief and his friendships.

“The management of life becomes exacerbated during the grieving process, [since] you start to reflect so much,” he says. “You’re already tied up in two lives—your own and the one that you lost. That oftentimes maxes people out in terms of management, and social media to me felt like another life that I didn’t have the energy or capacity to mange.”

Yet social media continues to demand to be managed—even in the afterlife. The Japanese company Yahoo Endings exists purely to help manage and plan for the fate of your digital self after death, acknowledging the intense connection our living identities have to our electronic ones.

Director Emmy Pickett, who is in post-production on a short film titled “EndingsInc” on the subject, points out that while it may seem cumbersome to manage your own social media during times of loss (or that of a loved one), historically, human beings have always relied on technology to memorialized the dead.

“We built pyramids, or created hieroglyphs to share stories about our loved ones and ensure they were remembered,” Pickett says. “The digital world and social media offers a new opportunity for dealing with death and grief. Japanese gravestones use QR codes, which when scanned allows the visitor to view photos, videos and other information about the deceased… new online rituals will definitely challenge traditional expectations for the proper way to mourn loved ones.”

While this is certainly true, perhaps the reverse is more pressing—that our expectations for mourning will challenge online rituals, and help shape sites like Facebook to be more receptive to conversations about grief and loss. While Mark Zuckerberg has commented on the upcoming advent of more nuanced buttons, currently both Facebook and Instagram allow for very simplistic feedback for posts in the form of hearts or likes, a set up that Jones argues is too “binary” to demonstrate empathy.

“There’s like, which is affirmative, but what is just an acknowledgement? What is just a nod? That hasn’t really been translated,” he says. “With grieving, a lot of people just want to feel acknowledged. You lose that when you go to the online community—the ability to express sadness, relief, gratitude.”

Where as 2015 was a year for honesty in social media, perhaps social media in 2016 will be defined by a quest for nuance—the search, not unlike what we experience in real life, for the tools to help express the complicatedly inexpressible waves of loss, of fumbling support, of empathy and thoughtfulness beyond a thumbs up. After all, as Theis notes, when we discuss the shortcomings within social media, we are in a way talking about the human condition, and our own pitfalls when it comes to dealing with grief.

“None of us are immune to loss,” Theis says. “The more we accept that everyone experiences this from time to time the better. The ability to connect and feel understood is so powerful and wonderful. People need that. If it can be done well, it’s amazing.”


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