Should We Be Warning Against Digital Mourning?
Recently, a cherished family member of mine passed away unexpectedly. Her name was Bella and she was my family’s beloved dog.
After saying goodbye, I had the urge to look back over every image I had uploaded of her on my social media accounts. I also felt the need to make a post commemorating her, letting people know what had happened and what she had meant to me and my family.
I couldn’t help but feel a bit guilty for these thoughts. I didn’t want to post on social media for attention, I didn’t want likes or profile views, I just didn’t know what else to do. I thought maybe sharing what had happened could help me come to terms with it. Before I was able to delete my social media accounts due to the fear of turning this situation into something that could be perceived as an attention seeking moment, I realised this is not an uncommon behaviour.
When Comic Book Writer Stan Lee and Comedian Robin Williams, along with a myriad of other celebrities, passed, social media platforms were bombarded with posts memorialising these people. It is also common for people to turn to social media for solace after mass shootings and similar events too.
As the world becomes more intertwined with technology, members of society are sharing more and more aspects of their lives on social media. Death is a natural and significant step in the circle of life, despite not being mentioned in the classic Lion King opening. Therefore, there is no surprise this part of life and coping with the end of it has manifested into Digital Mourning.
Digital Mourning is a relatively new concept that centres around those who use the affordances digital platforms offer to mourn the loss of a loved one. The move to digital platforms is facilitated through the increase of mediatisation, which describes the permeation of social life by media communication. Ultimately, technology is affecting more aspects of our lives as it is developed, and members of society increasingly utilise it.
Good Grief! What are you talking about?
Before we discuss whether digital technologies do or do not assist people during this time, it’s important to understand what happens when someone does suffer a loss. Grief is an extremely complicated emotion for anyone to experience and though unique to individuals, it is still universal.
Although a topic of much debate, grief is considered to have five stages: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. However, grief is not a linear process and some can experience a combination of these emotions at any singular time. One distinction which needs to be understood is that, although subtle, there is a difference between grief and mourning. The thoughts and feelings experienced and expressed internally are grief, while the outward expression of these emotions is mourning. Mourning is an integral part of the grieving process and it is this act that many have seen shift online.
Research and individuals’ experiences shows that Digital Mourning has many positive effects upon society.
How Does it Help?
In the case of Digital Mourning, people are not solely sharing their emotions and how they are feeling online, they are also utilising the affordances of social media to grieve. Some social media sites allow for accounts to be memorialised after death. Other platforms offer connectivity, allowing individuals access to communities of people experiencing a similar situation. Although not necessarily their intended purpose, an array of other aspects of social media platforms have created an environment where all emotions, including mourning, can be expressed.
Through the combination of increased mediatisation and social media’s features, not only are emotions being moved online, but memory too. With memories moving online, people experiencing loss can use social media channels to remember those that they have lost. Although reminders and reliving memories of a lost one can seem painful and difficult initially, it has been found that accessing memories can actually help in the grieving process.
Mourning publicly and with others can create an environment of Collective Grief which often allows some people to feel as though they are supported by a community. Feeling supported and heard during this time of grief also assists individuals in overcoming these trying times. Additionally, some often feel it is easier to discuss what they are experiencing through these platforms. Personally, I was able to speak about what had happened online through messages and comments only one day after losing Bella. However, a few days later when discussing it with a friend I was as hysterical as I was the first time I watched Disney Pixar’s UP. Allowing yourself to talk about the situation is an important step forward, and as using social media platforms helps begin the discussion for some, it is clear that these sites are becoming extremely valuable.
Social media sites are offering people the ability to preserve memories, pay tribute to lost loved ones, share emotions and feel connected to others while in mourning, which are all beneficial steps in moving through the trying time. However, like most things it also has its downsides.
How Does it Hinder?
The main issues arise when people find out about the death of a close friend, relative or loved one through these somewhat impersonal channels. When people publicly grieve the death of a loved one online, the potential for a relative simply scrolling through their newsfeed only to discover that a family member or close friend has died has increased drastically. This method of receiving devastating news such as the loss of life can have harmful effects on how people move through this trying time. Additionally, it allows for people to intrude into what should often be a very private circle of family and friends who are grieving.
It has also been linked to causing social pressure to participate in mourning, which can be damaging. Everybody grieves differently and if they feel pressured to express it a certain way then it might do more harm than good. When young actor Cameron Boyce passed earlier this year, one of his co-stars was publicly slammed for not sharing a commemorative post quickly enough. While when Stan Lee passed, actor Armie Hammer posted an insensitive tweet chastising some celebrities for making these posts. During a time when emotions are running high, giving access to the outside world only to receive negativity and backlash through these social media channels can cause individuals to feel lonely and distressed. Clearly, Digital Mourning has potential to not only harm those participating in it, but everybody around them too.
Regardless, experts can agree that although a useful tool to many in this situation, social media should always be used as a part of a comprehensive support system. Speaking to someone in real life and seeking professional support if required are both integral activities which can be helpful in coping with a loss. Social media should never be anyone’s only support during this time.
At the end of the day grief is grief, it will never be fully understood, and everybody will always have their own unique way of handling it. If social media allows you to move through this hard time, use it. If it doesn’t, don’t. Just make sure to respect the wishes of those around you and always offer support to one another. There is no right or wrong way to cope with the passing of a loved one. But sharing my experience online helped me and I’m thankful for that.