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A new mourning: grief in the digital age

Has social media brought the community back into bereavement or is there a morbid preoccupation with the online profiles of the deceased?

Grieving online: ‘This is the new normal ritual and behaviour when grieving in the digital age.’ Photograph: Chris Jackson/Getty

In April 2014 a cheerful and positive Instagram account turned dark. Rachel Brathen, also known as yoga_girl, suffered a tragedy in her life when her best friend was killed in a road incident. The Swedish yoga teacher began writing about her depression and grief on her Instagram account, which is followed by nearly one million yoga enthusiasts worldwide. Her usually bright and inspirational words turned to stories of pain and survival.

It was only a matter of time before the trolls appeared, commenting on her sudden transformation; where was this attractive young woman’s normal life of white-sand beaches and yoga lessons on paddle boards?

Brathen wrote at the time: “I decided to openly share my pain because it was the only way I knew how to cope, and I’m glad I did . . . I am not practising yoga, and honestly, most of the time I don’t feel like having my picture taken. I can’t share all those positive, inspiring words.”

Brathen is not alone in turning to social media for support when dealing with bereavement and the loss of a loved one.

Dr Elaine Kasket, a counselling psychologist at Regent’s University in London, says there’s nothing “abnormal or complicated” about grieving through the digital world, and that it can make bereavement “a much less isolating experience”.

Kasket has found, through research into mourning and memorialisation on Facebook, that people often become concerned by “technologically mediated mourning” and worry about the outpourings of young people on the Facebook pages of their dead friends.

“People get concerned that it’s somehow not healthy, that it’s a morbid preoccupation and a complicated grief.”

She says online memorials provide the bereaved with a whole “community of mourners” and argues that it does not interfere with a person’s understanding or acceptance of the death.

“If anything the awareness that the person is gone is even more acute, because the activity on the site is all from the friends. There’s nothing originating from the person any more.”

Kasket has found that young people often consider a Facebook message or email the most effective way of maintaining a connection with a dead family member or friend. “I’ve had participants tell me, ‘If I stand by her grave and talk to her I’m not sure if she can hear me, but if I write on her Facebook page, I’m pretty sure she can see that’.”

Kasket also highlights the potentially “damaging effect” of family members electing to remove a Facebook profile being used by others for mourning. “Profile removal is a massively retraumatising thing. Not so long ago these digital representations of people didn’t exist, but now that they are around, people come to expect their continuity and rely on them.”

“A Facebook profile is not just the work of one person, it’s a co-constructed thing,” says Kasket. “You, together with all your friends, build this entity. It’s a collaborative enterprise. It represents the relationships, the connections.”

She argues that if a family removes the deceased’s profile it “wipes away this huge repository of recollections and data about relationships”.

 

Lose control

David Trickey, a consultant clinical psychologist at the Anna Freud Centre in London, worries that children and adolescents could lose control over their Facebook posts when they share their grief online.

After a loved one has died, people tend to process their emotions by talking to others around them. The problem, according to Trickey, is that adolescents are communicating with people online who they may not know.

“The worry and potential risk is that you could lose control over it; those people may not have their best interests at heart.”

Trickey says that social media has “the potential to be incredibly therapeutic” when dealing with death. “It allows people think it through and have it supported by their peers.”

However, he warns parents and guardians to stop and think about the consequences of their children creating a permanent online record of their grief. “I would want the child to think through the consequences of sharing with strangers. That information could be used against them.”

Trickey, who worked with children affected by the July 2005 London terrorist attacks, says the bereaved can make sense of a death only by talking about it.

“Don’t be afraid to talk it through with people around you. The problem is avoidance: people will think about it and then push it away; then they don’t process it.”

Dr Helen Mackinnon, director of SeeSaw grief support network in Oxfordshire, agrees that young people must be careful when posting publicly about their grief, particularly as the impact of childhood bereavement can have “profound” and “long-term” effects.

She says some online memorial sites encourage “dangerous postings . . . With trolling, some quite abusive things can come up quite soon after death.”

Mackinnon argues that online memorials can sometimes lead to “competitiveness” between children and adolescents. “Everyone feels they have to leave their mark. Also, people can resent the intrusiveness by those who never knew the person.”

She also worries about the speed with which news of a suicide can spread online. “We’re finding that information goes viral within an hour of the news. Young people are finding out that something very traumatic has happened in a very inhuman way. You really need to be sitting down with a person to explain.”

Evan Carroll, co-author of Your Digital Afterlife, highlights that today’s younger generations use social media as their primary means of communicating with their peers. “Social media is the way they communicate; they don’t know a time without this pervasive technology. They’re able to grieve in a way that makes sense to them, in their natural elements.”

Carroll, who co-writes a blog to help people plan for the future of their online “digital assets”, says there’s a “certain healthiness” to online, public grieving.

“It’s not the equivalent of bottling up your emotions – you have an outlet to share them. Especially in cases where people don’t have that support system, sharing online can be very powerful.”

When Carroll’s grandmother died, he felt compelled to post about her death on his Facebook wall. “It was a way for me to feel like I could involve my friends in the grieving process. We were geographically very disconnected, and I didn’t necessarily have any of my close friends nearby.”

He says social media allows us to mourn as part of our daily lives. “In the past, mourning was something that happened for a very long time; it was a very public and open celebration of that individual’s life. [Social media] has brought the community back into bereavement.”

 

The new norm

Kasket believes the growing prevalence of grieving as part of an online community allows friends of the deceased to be included in the bereavement process.

“Friends have been a marginalised group of mourners in the past, but in the era of social networking, it’s the era of the friend.”

As the numbers of people using social media increase, so too will the numbers of people who die leaving behind online footprints, she says. “Social networking profiles are the new norm – they’re a digital extension of our physical selves.”

“This is the new normal ritual and behaviour when grieving in the digital age. There’s always going to be complicated grief out in the world, but there doesn’t seem to be any indication that mourning online makes things worse.”

Dr Elaine Kasket, Dr Helen Mackinnon and David Trickey will speak at the Irish conference on childhood bereavement in Dublin Castle on Oct 4. childhoodbereavement.ie