The last decade has seen a new way of mourning the passing of those we love and care for in the form of the social and psychological phenomenon of ‘online mourning’. And it’s gone much further then just Facebook and Twitter condolences.
Websites have popped up that offer anything from online memorial services, in the form of password-protected private pages where invited loved ones can come and post photos and memories, to software that keeps you ‘digitally alive’ despite your physical death. Posthumous posts, messages, and even conversations based on information gleaned from your previous online interactions are all now possible.
Personal choices for your ‘digital afterlife’ aside, the growth of online mourning raises the question, what are the implications of this very public way of managing the grieving process?
Why Online Mourning Can Be a Good Thing
From a psychological perspective it is clearly necessary to express the pain that grieving brings. The online environment can provide an supportive place for this to happen for those who might not have any support available, or feel uncomfortable letting those close to them see their pain. If someone doesn’t want to turn to friends who might not understand despite best intentions, or colleagues they have to see daily, or perhaps want a space to mourn that doesn’t affect their children or partner, things like online forums with people they never have to meet can seem like a miracle.
The internet can provide connection to others who are going through exactly what you are going through. While there have always been support groups for those suffering bereavement, it often meant a young twenty-something mourning a miscarriage is in with a group of older retirees who have lost their spouses. The internet gives you support in a much more targeted way, helping you find those who either share your exact sort of loss or are your age group. There are, for example, websites just for teenagers experiencing loss.
The support the internet provides can even match your mood and personality. Some sites and forums discussing mourning insist on positivity, others are very serious, and others take a humorous approach. You can decide what community works for you and tailor your mourning experience.
And the internet provides practical information on the daily ins and outs of managing life with someone you relied on gone. From websites, youtube videos, blogs, and even instagram feeds, you can more readily find answers to questions you might be embarrassed to ask.
And of course, the internet is there 24-7, which means you can feel less alone and find support as and when you need it.
The Dark Side to Online Mourning
Of course in some ways mourning online can sometimes make a spectacle of pain. Personal profiles on social networking can become inundated with messages,music links, emoticons, stories, poems or even virtual flowers and presents. Messages can pour in from people who never even knew the deceased. However well-meaning, this is impersonal about other people’s pain and possibly overwhelming, insulting, or off-putting for the family who has experienced the loss.
And there is of course the risk of ‘trolls’ who say inflammatory or unkind things for attention.
Mourning on social media does in general have a selfish quality to it. It is a way for us to show others we are in pain, but it rarely translates into something that helps the family of deceased or necessarily respects their privacy. It’s not as if many people are asking how they can help, if they can bring a meal around or run errands. And it rarely takes into account the family’s wishes for handling things.
In the case of famous people, online mourning can become more a show of fandom than respect. The deaths of Robin Williams and Amy Winehouse, for example, created huge arrays of comments and material. And at the end of the day, obsessive fandom can result in comments that are hard to describe as anything other than creepy, or are about nothing less then digital ‘oneupmanship’.
Online mourning can also become a source of conflict. It’s easier to say things online than in person, so fights can and do erupt. This can be over things like the nature of how the person in question died, or even how the funeral went. With mourning leaving people emotionally raw, one thoughtless comment can turn into can upset for many and leave feelings ruffled for months or years.
What do the psychological studies have to say about taking the grieving process online?
So far, the studies show generally positive results. A study at Southern Illinois University found, for example, that posting about the deceased on Facebook helped mourners make sense of death and feel a continued bond with the deceased. And a study done on ‘virtual memorials’ found them to be a positive device for healing and accepting loss.
Takeaway Tips if You Are Using the Internet to Mourn
1. Work on a delayed response policy.
If you are going to post something about the deceased on social media, do not post from a place of high emotion. Remember that in some cases what you post will become permanent and be on the internet for years if not decades.
It pays to write down what you want to say, then leave it for a few hours at least, if not for half a day or more. Go back to what you wrote and ask yourself again, is this really what I want to say? Is this about showing my respect for the deceased, or is this really about me seeking digital attention? Will this be something the family of the deceased feel supported by?
2. Don’t let online communication add to your stress.
Mourning is a long process with many ups ad downs and the last thing you need is unnecessary conflict with strangers. If at any time you feel stressed by comments or responses in a forum or on a Facebook page, or if you ever feel attacked, remember that you can shut the computer and walk away. You can then decide if you want to remove your membership to the forum or block others from your Facebook account if that is what it takes to stop you from unnecessary upset. Mourning is a time to be self-protective.
3. Don’t overdo it.
Connection and being understood are wonderful things, but like all good things they can be used incorrectly and become addictive. Addictive behaviour doesn’t help us heal, but actually stops us from dealing with situations.
So if you are spending all of your time online posting and messaging others about the deceased or your sorrow, ask yourself, is this really helping me move through grief, or is this causing me to wallow and/or making me feel numb? When is the time to draw the line? And also try this important question- – am I actually ready to move on but not allowing myself to as I am addicted to feeling part of this group?
4. Journal it out first.
Journalling is a private forum to release your feelings, and it is a useful idea to journal first before going online and posting. Why? Journalling takes off the emotional ‘charge’ from your upset, and makes it more likely you will be posting from a calm place that means you won’t later regret what you posted. You might even find it brings you useful revelations you can then share online with others and feel good about.
5. Don’t block support in real time.
Online support can be useful. But it can’t hug you or give you a shoulder to cry on, and it rarely translates into a long term connection. Don’t let online support cause you to be so distracted you push away or ignore real time support. Your partner might not understand exactly what you are going through, but it’s likely he or she really would love to be there for you. And your kids might be mourning themselves and need your support more than you think.
6. Don’t mistake online groups for the help of a professional.
Mourning with others is important, and is a big part of healing, but support from others who are going through what you are is not the same as support from a professional. If you feel your grief is not abating, or that it has perhaps triggered other, older grief within you, it might be time to consider the support of a bereavement counsellor or therapist who is trained at helping you move forward.
What do you think about online mourning? Is it a good thing, or not worth it? Share your thoughts below.
Pictures by Tnarick Innael, Christoph Grothaus