Grief and Social Media: At time of death

A topic for which one post will undoubtedly not suffice, the age of social media is rife with considerations we might do well to address sooner rather than later. Social media was the furthest thing from my mind during the last precious days of Christine’s life. As we gathered to share those final transformational hours as a family, time was seemingly suspended, never to be the same again.

In the immediate aftermath of her death – that initial, fragile, devastating time – we held on to each other, and as we could, began placing initial calls to our nearest and dearest who were solemnly waiting for word. The next circle of family and close friends would follow as soon as we could muster the strength. Some would be asked to be personal messengers to others as our emotional strength gave out. Not a half day had passed (she died in the morning) before we began to hear that people were learning of her death via Facebook. Among them, some we hadn’t yet had a chance to contact.

I was called by a dear friend of ours I’d wanted to phone myself, a historical friend who knew our lives and relationship, someone I could sob and be overwhelmed with. But she had already been contacted by a mutual friend who’d read it on Facebook. I was instantly furious, and then, crestfallen. She had to calm me down and tell me it was alright that she didn’t hear it from me personally. It felt as if our undiluted, first opportunity to mourn together was stolen. It wasn’t until much later that we really cried together. My anger wasn’t about who had received word first, or from whom, but how.

Only scant hours after Christine’s death, social media posts felt intrusive – as if our profoundly personal and meaningful passage had been co-opted as just one more bit of “news,” and precisely when we most needed to share our thoughts and emotions first-hand.  Our life-altering experience felt reduced – reported in others’ “news feeds” with their interpretations and motivations. It felt insulting and painful to my mind, heart, and emotions. How could it be that the time we needed in our most vulnerable state, was underestimated, misunderstood, not considered? A few hours was too soon.

In contemplating this relatively recent phenomenon, I’ve realized how little exists in the way of guidance when it comes to the use of social media around death and grief. Some people possess an approach that’s basically parallel to their offline social behavior: if they wouldn’t do something offline, they wouldn’t do it online either. Others, by contrast, seem at a loss to know how to align their online behavior with what they would customarily do in person. The disconnect, at least in part, seems be related to a number of readily observable phenomenon. One being the immediacy of social media communication and the sense of urgency it engenders. I can feel it almost instantly on any number of social sites as soon as I log on. The urge to post something new, exciting, and attention-getting is part and parcel of the experience. This compulsion to create content can, and sometimes does, override better judgement. Another is a kind of “personal insulation” – a sense of detachment from consequences and considerations one would make in person, but that online, one may rightfully renounce.

I have no intention of deriding the respectful and responsible use of social media for sharing the experience and impact of a death, and to inform wider circles who may not have been personally close to the deceased, but who nonetheless care and want to support their grieving loved ones and friends. Quite the contrary, as these are legitimate uses. However, much more care and consideration can be taken to keep the grief-stricken foremost in mind and heart, beginning in the immediate aftermath of a loved one’s death. To slow down, to patiently pause, to consider the magnitude of death, of its unalterable consequences, is to move toward real empathy, and then to act accordingly.

The Physical Demands of Grief

Grief is exhausting. It takes a huge amount of physical energy, in addition to the mental and emotional. As Ginger Sullivan, LPC and psychotherapist, so aptly blogged, “Grieving is a 24/7 job that places high demands on our whole self.”

My grief has left me bone tired, blurry, achy, and unable to concentrate. Then, I’ll experience a short recuperation, or even a burst of energy, after which a strong current of tiredness overtakes me again. I’m trying to accept the back and forth, and allow myself to go with it, instead of fighting it with a willfully imposed productivity that usually backfires anyway. 

Letting grief temporarily build-up – whether from the day-to-day demands of life, or unconsciously trying to push through it – has physical repercussions for me too. I’m like a pressure-cooker and I have to regularly let off the steam of sadness by giving myself over to the experience. I do this primarily through crying (alone, or with an understanding loved one or friend), talking about Chris, writing about her, and to her, and listening to, and making, music. Being able to distract myself from my grief allows me to function, but too much of a build-up exhausts me even more.

In his book “Better Than Blessed,” psychologist and minister Donald L. Anderson said, “Healthy are those who mourn. Only very recently have we begun to realize that to deny grief is to deny a natural human function and that such denial sometimes produces dire consequences. Grief, like any genuine emotion, is accompanied by certain physical changes and the release of a form of psychic energy.”

My stress response is also compromised. I don’t have my normal “bounce back” from situations that really aren’t that big of a deal. I find that I need to consciously remind myself that these minor melt-downs are a signal that I need to retreat for a bit to release and/or renew my physical energies along with my emotional ones. I’ve never felt to this degree how physically demanding vulnerability can be, and that there must be recuperation from that emotional expenditure. Is it any wonder that embracing our experience of grief is unpopular?

Some things that are recuperative and energizing to me (though I struggle with consistency) are extra sleep, quiet time (especially in the morning and at night), gentle exercise like walking and yoga, eating nutritious foods and drinking extra water, practicing guitar and writing music, and talking honestly with those who are recently bereaved or experienced in attending to their own grief. And of course, talking about Kissie and her influence in my life, and hearing others’ stories of her influence in theirs, is deeply restorative.