Sideways Grief- Mourning in the Digital Age
Over the past few months I have learned of the death of 3 friends over social media. While none of these people were daily staples in my life, they all had left a lingering impression on my life. One taught me the true act of forgiveness and understanding, one taught me to conquer my fears of strangers, and one taught me how to be kind to everyone, even the people you don’t like. I wouldn’t be who I am without the impression all three of them have left on my life. But rather than being permanent fixtures of my life, they’re ghosts of fingerprints in my past. I miss them. I regret not spending more time with them, not making those extra trips, or sending that email when I had the chance. The things everyone thinks when someone is suddenly gone and you’re left holding a bundle of words left unsaid.
I’ve had relatively little experience with loss over my life, and this past month has been a challenge to learn how to handle the strange swirl of emotions running together into a blur that leaves me forgetting to brush my hair before I walk out of the house in the morning. Grief is strange. I’ve never been particularly good at dealing with grief (who is really?) and the past month has been a struggle to figure out how to mourn, how to process, and how to manage the barrage of remainders that light up my notification boxes. It’s certainly given me a new respect for everyone who’s had to keep their grief tucked in their pocket as they move through life and try to pretend things are okay.
Part of me wants to remember every detail, and part of me wants those reminders to disappear. I feel like I’m walking through a rain storm and occasionally the wind blows everything in sideways and past whatever protection I was wearing. I’ll sign online and suddenly sideways grief rains down on me and I’m back in the first raw moment, feeling the loss again and again. Learning more and more about all the parts of their life I never knew about, seeing all the other hurt people reaching out for someone to understand. There’s an ability to connect with strangers over a shared loved one, a uniting of grief that happens outside of a memorial service. There’s spaces for memories to be shared, and comfort to be found in a mutual feeling of loss.
Grief is different in the digital age. Relationships aren’t confined by touch or miles anymore. People across the world who have never physically met someone mourn for their death in public. Funerals are live streamed and tribute videos are shared over youtube. But the public mourning leaves me confused about what to do in private and how to process the combinations of digital and physical. There are unexpected reminders everywhere. I sign onto a Facebook game and burst into tears when I see a friend’s account there asking me to go visit them. I wince when someone else has turned their profile picture into a picture of my friend who has passed. Seeing that face beside a comment and knowing they’re gone. It’s a strange, messy digital world with pieces of a life left behind.
It leaves me astonished at the power of social media, and of the strangeness of a life seen only in digital spaces. A normal post of ‘What a beautiful day :)’ becomes the final words on a digital tombstone. Stories, memories and regrets are shared and collected like a digital scrapbook of loss.
Everyone, I think, struggles to understand how to mourn in times like this. How do you mourn someone you didn’t hug every day but who you knew across the space of the Internet? How do you manage the sharing of stories without the constant reminder of the loss of someone amazing? How do you honor and remember without keeping wounds raw and hurting?
The truth is, I don’t know, and I doubt if anyone does. Grief doesn’t come in a one size fits all format and hits everyone differently. Some people cry it out and move on. Me? I wake in the dead of the night with my heart thundering in my ears because I dreamt someone else has passed away. Not that I dreamt of the actual moment they died. Instead my nightmares are of Facebook posts scrolling by telling me who is gone.