How I came to study the way we express grief online

Molly Kalan
Sep 29, 2016 · 5 min read
Image via Stacey Pitsillides “Digital Death” project

If you’ve been on Facebook long enough, you’ve likely witnessed people expressing grief in some way. Maybe you’re reminded of a friend’s passing when, on their birthday, friends share memories and stories on their wall. Maybe you learn that someone is grieving when they change their profile picture in honor of a loved one who has passed away. Or maybe a friend’s post pops up in your newsfeed when they share a status update asking for support.

In these cases, the profile (this isn’t limited to Facebook) comes to stand in for the person, and we even treat the platform like the person is listening to us in our posts.

Reflecting on death & fear

When I started noticing these posts after a friend of a friend passed away in college I couldn’t look away. But I couldn’t figure out why. For most of my life, if someone were to ask me about my greatest fear I would probably say death (and I assume I’m not alone there). In thinking about why that is, I’ve considered a couple of reasons that make sense. For one, as someone who isn’t very religious I don’t necessarily feel that I have a specific framework to think about death that can be comforting. To me this unknowability is daunting to consider and is something I made sure to actively avoid thinking about. I was also lucky to grow up without experiencing loss in a very personal way. On the other hand, my mom experienced the loss of two brothers at a young age. In our family this was something that knew was upsetting to her before I understood why. Again, it was uncomfortable to think and talk about, so it was easier to avoid. Because I so often tried not to think about all of this, I ended up feeling overwhelmed by anxiety and emotion when I tried to process how I felt and what death means to me.

These experiences informed my point of view about death and grief as I grew up, but when the topic began to infiltrate my own Facebook news feed I felt differently. I was curious, and I wanted to understand what was going on. Looking back at the moment when I first witnessed this sort of expression, I recognize how, by extension, thinking through and studying how people express grief online felt like a way to approach the topic without being overwhelmed.

When my plans changed

Fast forward a bit, and I entered a graduate program in Media Studies with the intention of studying TV and film, not death and grief. As I began the program, I couldn’t get this nagging thought out of my head. I wanted to understand why people were turning to Facebook to express grief, what they felt they got out of the experience and what a friend’s profile meant to them when it became a place of memorialization.

My plans changed. With the support of faculty advisers and my cohort, I decided to take on the topic from a research perspective and dive into the unknown. I figured out how to turn those questions around death, social media and the way we express grief online into a research project that ultimately became my Master’s thesis.

Talking through the experience

In order to answer these questions, I conducted a qualitative research study that involved personally interviewing 20 students about their experiences expressing grief online. Many conversations and hours of transcribing later, I gained an understanding of the nuances around this experience (which you can read in detail here). I found that when someone dies, a Facebook profile comes to stand in for this person in their absence. We see them as they were when they were alive, and we celebrate their lives by sharing stories and building up an archive of digital memories. I also found that while a platform like Facebook can be comforting for some to express grief and interact with a community of others who are mourning, it evokes discomfort all the same. Users balance the comfort they derive with the discomfort of the profile remaining online indefinitely — which is totally uncharted territory.

One of the most interesting results of this project was seeing that everyone has a different understanding of how to use Facebook in the “right” way. This is in line with what grief scholars call the postmodern paradigm for grief expression — i.e. what works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another, and that’s okay. This requires us to accept that people grieve in different ways, even if it seems strange to us.

Why does this matter?

While the experience of expressing grief online doesn’t come without challenges, the profile presents an opportunity to celebrate others, leave a legacy, and — importantly — break taboos of talking about and understanding death publicly.

The way we talk about death is changing. Every now and then you might see a headline designed to shock you about how the next generation is breaking grieving norms (think funeral selfies or embalming a loved one for their funeral). Either way, we can’t ignore the accumulation of data, photos, social profiles and the general digitization of our lives that will impact how we are remembered when we die.

For me, conducting this study was revelatory on an academic and personal level. I wanted a way to think about death without being afraid of it, and this process helped me confront that fear. Accepting all of the ways that people are using the platform was also a way for me to accept how to talk about grief in my own life.

As a PR professional, this insight continues to make me think differently about the tools we use every day in our jobs. There is tremendous power behind a social media profile and what it means to others. We can embrace this and continue to reflect on answering the bigger questions about life (and death) online.

You can read my full thesis and conclusions based on this research project online here, and watch a short clip of my InkHouse Golden Carrot talk on the topic:

Molly Kalan

Written by

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