Exploring how grief is expressed on Facebook (and what this means)

Molly Kalan
Aug 8, 2016 · 4 min read

Anyone who currently uses a social media profile to interact with others online knows that people often share quite personal details about their lives in what is arguably a very public forum. This extends to grief and bereavement, as we witness our friends share a status update announcing someone’s passing or see someone write on a friend’s wall after they have died. This is a relatively new phenomenon, but shouldn’t be all that surprising. The prevalence of social media necessarily means that we must confront death: more than 10,000 Facebook users die every day, and some experts expect that dead Facebook users will outnumber the living by 2065 (The Loop).

Our traditions around grief are growing to include social media profiles out of necessity, and the way we use sites like Facebook to express grief cannot be ignored.

After witnessing several friends use Facebook to share news of someone’s passing or to write on a friend’s wall even after that friend died, I wanted to understand the implications of using social media in this way — especially considering that the profiles weren’t created with the intention of being memorialized.

In my research on the topic, I interviewed 20 young adults in order to answer several questions: How do Facebook users experience interaction with a deceased user’s profile? How do young adults experience the expression of grief on Facebook? How do Facebook users engage in online memorialization?

These interviews and the in-depth analysis that followed revealed the complex nature of sharing feelings of grief and bereavement online, which often takes the form of commemorating and memorializing someone by sharing stories about them, focusing on what they were like when alive, and continuing to interact with the profile in the days and weeks (even years) following this person’s death. The profile comes to stand in for this person, having been created by them in their own image. It becomes an active memorial site where the accumulation of others’ posts over time contributes to an archive of who they were when alive.

Finding Both Comfort & Discomfort

Some people find tremendous comfort in interacting with a profile in this way, citing the ease of using the profile and their ability to share directly and seemingly preserve this person’s identity through a dynamic capsule (consider the difference in interacting with a profile versus visiting someone’s grave to pay your respects). At the same time, users feel uncomfortable when they feel that every time they log in they are confronted by death. This is a space that they want to use for other purposes too, and they might feel guilty for not engaging in further memorialization even if they feel ready to move on.Thus, a profile’s persistence can be at once both comforting and a source of discomfort.

The Persistent, Public Profile

There are incredible benefits to having this profile remain online for those in mourning, especially when we consider how the profile democratizes the rituals around death, including friends, family, co-workers, and even casual acquaintances in the process due to the nature of Facebook friendship. Tied up in persistence,though, is the public nature of processing grief through Facebook, where the traditional “dialogues with the dead” are made public and are therefore subject to monitoring, self-regulation and criticism.

We may be encouraged by our community’s reaction and how people come together to support one another when a friend dies, but speaking to those who have experienced this reveals more complexity. Users may feel expected to say something, and end up writing a post that feels more generic than genuine. Many are concerned with abiding by the norms and acting appropriately in a situation they’ve never experienced before. Despite not having rules to follow, they tend to apply these perceived norms to the posts of themselves and others. What emerges is a focus on the relational hierarchy of other people posting. Users gauge how close the person posting was to the deceased and determine guidelines for their own post in relation to others (for example, in terms of the post’s length, frequency of sharing or the depth of experience shared).

The Impact Of Facebook

Facebook and other social media sites present new avenues to express grief, but they complicate our traditions and what is expected of the bereaved. Discomfort is likely to occur — whether rooted in the persistent nature of the profile or in the violation of perceived norms. How to interact with a user’s profile that remains online after they die is a divisive topic, but there are both positive and negative experiences that can come out of this type of interaction.

In my opinion, one clear positive impact is that Facebook is changing the way we learn, think, and talk about death. The profile’s very existence gives us a place to memorialize a loved one and break down taboos related to talking about and confronting death. While there is definitely some aversion to sharing such personal feelings on Facebook from some, the fact that this is happening is unavoidable as increasing numbers of Facebook users pass away.

Ultimately, each time we use Facebook in this way we are learning how to grieve — including what it means to be part of a bereaved community, how to appropriately express grief, and how to think about our own mortality.

You can find more information on my research related to Facebook and grief here, or listen to my interview on the Death Goes Digital podcast.

This post was originally published on the Death Goes Digital blog.

Molly Kalan

Written by

media & comms @InkHousePR. researching online identity, grief & memorialization. love design, urbanism, fonts, coffee & puns. @VillanovaU // @NewhouseSU

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