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Has Social Media made Grieving Easier?


Regular readers of our blog will know that I lost my mum to cancer almost 15 years ago. Even now I have days when the feelings of grief and loss are almost too much to bear – like this week when I have a poorly little boy at home and am really busy with work and all I want to do is pick up the phone and call my mum – and in one of those times I liked group on Facebook called “Motherless Daughters”. It sounds like a really depressing group doesn’t it? But actually it’s just somewhere that women like me, who have lost their mums, can get some support and talk about what losing your mum really means to us ladies, such as who do we turn to when we have our own children?

Anyway, this morning I came across a blog that had been shared by this group in which the writer looked at whether mourning the loss of her own mother would have been easier if Facebook and the like had been around back then. It was a good piece, if slightly negative, but it got me thinking about whether social media could make the process of grieving easier.

My own mum died in 2000, so four years before Mark Zuckerberg and his pals created the global phenomenon that is Facebook, and the only way people could let me know they cared was by sending a sympathy or thinking of you card, or flowers. These were all lovely of course, and gratefully received, but often the words in the cards meant very little and the handwritten parts were simply along the lines of “she’s not in pain any more” or “she wouldn’t want you to be sad” which felt stilted and empty at the time. Only people who had been through a similar experience took time to speak to me in person and tell me the harsh reality of the pain I was feeling was normal and not necessarily finite, or that it was ok to fall apart every now and then.

Now it seems that social media allows people to be more open and honest about death and grieving, the distance that Facebook and the like allows you means that you feel more able to share. I have an old school friend that I haven’t seen in probably 20 years, we’ve been Facebook friends for perhaps 8 years and we’ve shared some personal stuff that we probably wouldn’t have if we’d met in person and had to rebuild our friendship. Her dad had been ill on and off for a while and a few weeks ago he had to be hospitalised and it was discovered that he had secondary cancer which is sadly terminal. She immediately got in touch with me, one of her few friends to have lost a parent to cancer and interestingly the only one she doesn’t see in person.

Since then I have been, for want of a better word, counselling her through this period when all you can do is hope, despite knowing in your heart that there is none, whilst you wait for the end to come and wish above everything else that your loved one suffers as little pain as possible. This has inevitably brought back my own painful memories and caused me to have a few more bad days of late, but actually I’ve been able to be what some might call brutally honest. If you’re standing in a room with someone and tell them something hard, you tend to hold back and temper your words. Social media allows you to tell it like it is – obviously I’m not really brutal! – something you need, indeed cry out for, when you’re in this situation is for people to be honest, you need to know what to expect so you can prepare yourself for what’s coming.

If you’ve been unlucky enough to experience the loss of a family member or friend, think about the differing faces of people on social media. You’ll often see the same stilted comments I mentioned earlier on the profiles of those left behind, but on the profile of the person who’s died will be post upon post about how much they’re missed, what people miss about them, photos of great times shared, an outpouring of love and true feelings that for some reason people just feel more comfortable sharing when there’s some distance via the internet.

In a study of Facebook memorial pages (Degroot 2012) it was determined that most of the people wrote messages directly to the deceased, as though that person were reading it from the after-life. The study found that the people would even reach out to the deceased through the page and ask them for guidance or protection. In a study completed by (Kern, Forman & Gil-Egui, 2013), it was discovered the "majority of pages returned showed that people posting to the RIP pages are writing in the second person (e.g., 'watch over us from heaven'). Pages written in the second person outnumber first and third person pages by a margin of nearly 2:1".

It must be a huge comfort to people to see how loved and well thought of their loved ones were, memories are all you’re left with so to have all of those messages and images left from people who also cared. One of the hardest things for me back in 2000 was feeling like my mum was gone and forgotten, that only I and a handful of others remembered or thought about her. Does that mean that social media has made grieving easier? Ultimately I don’t think so but on another level, it most definitely made the process a little more transparent and less taboo.

If you’ve drawn comfort from social media after the loss of someone close to you, please do let me know. I’d be interested to hear your story. And don’t forget, there are loads of amazing charities and support groups out there who can help you through the grieving process too.

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