For most of his life, my father had a large, cheerful presence. With a booming voice and a distinct whistle that could be heard through a crowd, he did not go unnoticed. He was an artist and a teacher and his large presence in real life reflected his presence on the internet. He was a pioneer in using technology in education by being the first educator to use podcasting in his fourth-grade classroom, and he later became recognized for photography using his iPhone. My dad used Facebook to post photos and drawings each day. When he became sick, they reflected his emotions and he would take photographs and create sketches to convey his pain. As his presence deteriorated in real life, so did his presence online. His photographs got darker and dismal, and so did he.
On December 8, 2015, when my dad didn’t post a photo, the internet noticed. He had a large presence and following online and after his death, all that was left was a shadow of his posts and artwork. As an educator, my dad knew many people through social media, and many people followed his daily photography. When he died, these people grieved and voiced their emotions. Unlike those people, I didn’t see my dad through a screen, I saw him behind his big round glasses, sitting in his chair drawing. I saw him as the man who told me stories and kissed my forehead, not as his profile picture. Grief is overwhelming and unbearable. It is a wave that swallows you in its undertow and just as you think you are reaching the surface, engulfs you again in a perpetual rotation. While I grieved the loss of my father, so did hundreds of people online. But we grieved in different ways. I needed time and air, while the water filled my lungs. It seemed the other people were swimming while I could b arely float. Social media has turned grieving into a public process and does not allow people to grieve privately and on their own time. The undertow was pulling me into the sand, and at the time, I needed to sink a bit, before I could process the new reality of my life.
In an age where every emotion is documented and Facebook pesters you to answer the question, “What’s on your mind?” grief is coped with publicly. Before social media, grief was dealt with in a solitary way, and now the vulnerable, private process has become digitized. According to an article in the Huffington Post written by Lexi Herrick, “people use social media for three primary grieving purposes. The first is to build a bridge of perpetual existence through a deceased loved one’s social pages. The second is to participate in mass grieving that exists very strongly through the Internet. And the third reason is for the condolence, support, acknowledgment, and sense of belonging from the living that engage in their displays of grief.” Because we have become immune to the changes in our personal lives affected by social media, it can be unclear how dramatically it has changed the way we deal with death.
A major aspect of grieving done on social media is continuing to have a relationship with the deceased through the screen. After their physical body is gone, those grieving speak to the dead by writing on their Facebook wall. According to a study done in an experiment of Facebook memorial pages, it was discovered most individuals write as if the dead are reading their words in the afterlife. In an experiment performed by Rebecca Kern, Abbe E. Forman, and Gisela Gil-Egui in 2013 it was found the “majority of pages returned showed that people posting to the RIP pages are writing in the second person. Pages written in the second person outnumber first and third person pages by a margin of nearly 2:1” It was also found most of the pages where people spoke to the dead directly were people who had died early in life in a tragic way. (Kern, Forman & Gil-Egui, 2013) By writing in the second person, people tried to rationalize a tragic death by asking questions and feeling connected, almost fantasizing as if the person is still alive. Social media provides a narrative, instead of eliminating the possibility of ever speaking to a lost loved one again. It gives us a breath of air after being swept in the undertow when we see a photograph or an anecdote of our loved ones from the past. It gives a false sense of hope and also provides comfort in a way similar to religion or discussing the afterlife with a medium. It creates a community for those experiencing grief, giving them an outlet to comment words of love and support to each other. It also gives a platform to share personal stories and remember those lost. The challenging element is the inability to convey empathy. When discussing the new addition of the dislike button on Facebook Mark Zuckerberg expressed, “What they really want is the ability to express empathy. Not every moment is a good moment.” (Coen, 2015) Liking a status announcing the death of someone can seem inappropriate. And becuase there is no “empathy” button, we must learn the new social elements of respecting those grieving while on social media.
Because of social media’s invading grasp, people cannot grieve in solitude. It is a window into other people’s lives and the glass is fogged, causing the scene to appear altered and obscured to the observer. A day after my father died I logged onto facebook and saw someone had already posted about his death with his name highlighted in blue. I was still in a state of shock and hadn’t even begun to process his passsing so when I saw a post from one of his old friends I became practically hysterical. I wasn’t ready for it to be real yet, and this woman I hardly knew had interfered with my own personal grieving process. I remember scanning my mouse over his name, and his profile still appeared, with a sketch he had drawn of himself floating above her requiem. This made it seem he was just offline and not actually dead. Within forty-eight hours of his passing, word had circulated on the internet of his death and instead of me and my mom quietly grieving in our home, it became public knowledge before we were ready to discuss it. Before funeral arrangements had been made, his obituary appeared in the newspaper, or flowers had been sent people were already posting their condolences online. In an article titled One-Click Condolences, Amy Webb elaborates, “one-click condolences don’t help people deal with loss. In fact, it accelerates a social norm that would otherwise take several weeks.” (Webb, 2014) Although I was receiving so many messages and prayers, I did not feel connected to any of them. It actually made me angry when people would tag my dad in a post because even seeing his photo made me extremely emotional. Solitude is an important part of grieving. Stefan Klein, a German scientist who studied the neuroscience of sadness wrote in his book The Science of Happiness, “German culture, especially,” he says, “has been fatally imbued with the idea that solitude is a particularly desirable and noble condition….” that solitude brings people closer to their innermost selves” (Stepp, 2017) I had an excessive amount of elements of my father’s death to process and I wanted to do so alone. My phone kept vibrating, interrupting my thoughts, and I kept ignoring the notifications. It distracted me in an unhealthy way and prevented me from having, “those private, intimate moments of grieving” which were “supplanted now by public pings, interrupting our grieving process in the worst possible way.” (Webb, 2014) I felt guilty not responding to people, but I also was not in the state of mind to make the death of my dad public.
My grieving process was made more complicated because of social media and how quickly information is shared online. After the overwhelming floods of comments and statuses, there was a lull in the conversation about my dad’s death. In just a couple weeks after my dad’s death, it seemed everyone had forgotten about him. Grieving is not something that can simply be completed after writing a status or posting a picture. It is a process that does not have a time limit. When people stopped posting I felt like they stopped caring, and I felt like I had to put my grieving to rest and move on before I was ready. My dad’s death seemed like another trend online, and like all trends, people lost interest in him. While grieving is different for everyone, it is common for the process to last for six to eighteen months (King, 2017). In my senior year of high school I felt the pressure to maintain my presence online, and to my followers, it appeared I was doing fine. I would Instagram the good moments of my life, and the moments where the undertow was swallowing me were not posted. Because I posted as if I had moved on, as if my grieving process was completed, people treated me as if it was. This caused my emotions to be stunted and I felt like my presence online was completely different from the complicated situation I was living.
Facebook made my personal process of grieving more complicated because people were writing about my dad in the present tense. Just as the study by Rebecca Kern, Abbe E. Forman and Gisela Gil-Egui in 2013 said, people spoke to him in the second tense. Because his death was a tragic event, the community and his family members used his Facebook page to make sense of the whole situation. For me, I felt this was strange and because he was my dad, I did not feel connected to him by typing on his wall.
It was challenging for me to accept my dad’s death because his profile would also still come up in the chat bar, the little green dot next to his name offered a false sense of hope like I was Gatsby watching the green light across the water. It was like he was still alive, and this made it challenging for me to accept that he wasn’t. I would read his old statuses and look at his photography and feel like he could post something any minute. I was in an alternate reality that was caused by a screen. Most of the posts about my dad did not ease my pain, I simply clicked through a sea of “Sorry for your loss.” It felt like there was a separation, it felt mechanical and insincere. People were trying to profess their empathy but I couldn’t feel it through the disconnect of their computer and mine.
Although social media makes death much more public and invasive than it used to be, it also provides a platform for people to remember the accomplishments and impact a person made during their lifetime. A couple months ago I googled my dad’s name, and I found a website called bobtaughtme.com. It was created by his coworkers and fellow educators. On the main page of the site, it listed the goals of the page: “ To archive and preserve Bob’s digital legacy and amplify the way Bob has taught and continues to teach learners around the United States and the world.” The website consisted of links to his websites and reflections from his past students and colleagues. Although this was an extremely public way of remembering my dad, it gave me comfort that he was not being forgotten and his impact would continue to be recognized. His photos would remain online, the podcasts would continue to be listened to and a presence he worked so hard during his lifetime to create would remain. I memorialized his page on Facebook, where his drawings and photography can continue to breathe. Social media has many negative effects on the grieving process and I believe boundaries need to be respected when posting about a passing of someone. But with this new kind of public scrapbook, I also believe social media can be a positive component in remembering the life of those lost.
Coen, Susie. “Has Social Media Changed the Way We Grieve?” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, 18 Sept. 2015. Web. 12 Mar. 2017.
Herrick, Lexi. “The Reasons We Grieve on Social Media.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 16 July 2014. Web. 12 Mar. 2017.
Kern, Rebecca, Abbe E. Forman, and Gisela Gil-Egui. “R.I.P.: Remain in Perpetuity. Facebook Memorial Pages.” R.I.P.: Remain in Perpetuity. Facebook Memorial Pages. Elsevier, Feb. 2013. Web. 12 Mar. 2017.
King, Mary. “Breaking the Silence: Social Media’s Impact on the Way We Grieve.” South Carolina’s News, Weather and Sports Leader – Wistv.com – Columbia, South Carolina. N.p., 1 Feb. 2017. Web. 13 Feb. 2017.
Stepp, Gina. “Give Sorrow More Than Words .” Life and Health: Give Sorrow More Than Words: The Neuroscience of Grief. N.p., 13 Dec. 2017. Web. 13 Feb. 2017.
Webb, Amy. “How Social Media Makes the Grieving Process More Difficult.” Slate Magazine. N.p., 13 Aug. 2014. Web. 13 Feb. 2017.