How Social Media Makes the Grieving Process More Difficult

How to understand your data
Aug. 13 2014 3:22 PM

One-Click Condolences

Social media expedites the mourning process. But it offers little comfort to the grieving.

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Propagating the news of a loss on Twitter isn’t the same as helping activate people during a natural disaster, where spreading news quickly may be a means of survival. Clicking a button on someone’s Facebook wall isn’t the same as sharing a personal essay on what to do in the aftermath of losing a loved one. The retweets and likes—all those clicks—distance us from each other. They become substitutes for the tangible, real-life human connections that, ultimately, we all need. Clicking “like” excuses us from making a phone call. Or, in the cases of depression, we might acknowledge that someone is suffering because of what they’re posting—or because they’ve stopped posting at all—but forget to check in and have a conversation.

When my own mother died after a grueling bout with a rare, incurable form of cancer, I was emotionally depleted. In the hours after her passing, I involuntarily collected data on who had been in contact with my family, making a mental list. I think we all do this when someone close to us dies, as a way to help process what’s happening. I kept a list of the extended family and relatives we hadn’t heard from; my assumption was that if the phone hadn’t rung, they probably didn’t yet know she was gone.

On Facebook, I actively tracked that data. It’s impossible not to. The number of likes, comments, and shares was right there, beneath every post. People I hadn’t talked to since high school posted on my wall. So did co-workers, people I’d met once at conferences, the guy who owns my favorite restaurant. In what I assume was a show of support, a few dozen of my Facebook friends “liked” that my mom was dead. My mom was a teacher for 35 years, so when we unexpectedly received cards and phone calls from the hundreds of students she’d taught over the years, it filled a small but important part of the void I felt. When I heard from the guy who—I think—sat next to me in chemistry class, I felt raw and vulnerable. Was he messaging me out of obligation? Why was he suddenly privy to this part of my life? And when the person who’d been my closest friend for many years didn’t post anything at all, I became incredibly angry.

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The number of likes was completely subjective and based on myriad variables that run counter to common logic. Liking, or even acknowledging the post, bore no real relation on what people actually thought. It’s possible the Facebook algorithm just wasn’t showing them my post. Or that the people I’d connected to on Facebook just preferred to email me. Or that their computers were broken.

Yet I paid close attention to that Facebook data. Only a few dozen people liked the post about her passing. What did that mean? Why didn’t some people—who I actually did consider to be my friends in the real world—post anything at all on Facebook, or on the listservs I belonged to? What did that say about my mom, I wondered? About me?

It’s human nature to grieve together, to share stories, to talk through loss. Our comfort level on social media has changed. Those private, intimate moments of grieving are supplanted now by public pings, interrupting our grieving process in the worst possible way. Social media has transformed death into a sort of public spectacle. For some people, that may help them in the first few hours. But one-click condolence calls are a quick acknowledgement of loss that provides little relief or emotional support to those who need a shoulder to cry on in the real world. There is a certain comfort in crying in the presence of other people, I’ve learned.

The challenge is squaring acceptable social media behavior with what people need in real life. It’s a matter of using the tools readily available to share the most important information quickly, and then relying on our basic humanity for all the rest. Pick up the phone. Write a personal letter. Gather together in person with flowers, photos, candles, or whatever else makes sense for the community in mourning. Twitter and Facebook offer a lot of efficiencies, but speeding up the natural grieving process can’t be one of them.

Amy Webb writes a column about data for Slate. She's the head of Webbmedia Group, a digital strategy agency, the author of Data, A Love Story and the co-founder of Spark Camp.

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