Grief in the Age of Social Media


Grief in the Age of Social Media

Illustration: Sushant Ahire/Arré

“He was extraordinarily strong, healthy, and vibrant until the moment he was gone… He will always be only 30 years old.” A few weeks ago, scrolling past my Instagram feed in a post-work daze, I was shaken out of my complacency by this heartbreaking post. A lady I’d never met, or even heard of, had suddenly lost her husband. Instagram was promoting her profile, which had since turned into a tribute for the man she loved. “I continue to share our story, and Jacob’s memory, because it’s my best way to keep him alive in conversation,” read Anjali Pinto’s caption under a photograph of her and her late spouse. The Chicago-based photographer has posted regularly since his passing, talking about the things they shared, and how much affection they held for each other.

As a person who hasn’t felt the need to update their Facebook status in two years, I was equal parts melancholic and in awe of this stranger’s ability to be so open about their sorrow. Her grieving, in turn, was equal parts a celebration of the life she had with her husband, and also an attempt to rid herself of going through the grieving process alone.

Grieving, we’ve been reared to believe, is a fiercely private thing. Instinct guides us away from crowds and friends, and the emotional burden of telling stories of your loved ones. You want to retreat to a dark cave to lick your wounds in silence. In grief, you have a profound right to silence, but sometimes silence doesn’t cut it. The modern take on grieving is to let it all out.

Modern grief, the kind that lives on the internet, is a whole world away from old-world grief, the kind you preserved inside of you. Today when a friend, relative, or acquaintance passes away, it is more than likely that one will come across an outpouring of posts in the deceased’s memory. This string of digital prayers lend a feeling of togetherness at the time of the unfortunate event, but that outpouring slowly becomes a kind of ongoing ritual. This in turn, as Megan Garber fascinatingly argues, converts a hashtag or comment thread into a funeral, allowing people to pay respects and share grief about the passing away of a loved one. So Facebook accounts live on, managed by loved ones, as messages are exchanged and received, memories are shared, and birthdays and anniversaries are respected. Studies have found that keeping Facebook pages open allowed friends and family to feel like they’re reaching out to the deceased, negating the feeling of loss. In this version of grieving, the person is alive in the virtual world, if not in the real one.

Modern grief, the kind that lives on the internet, is a whole world away from old-world grief, the kind you preserved inside of you.

I have a friend on Facebook who lost her brother some years ago. Thanks to regular updates, I know most of their shared childhood memories — his birthday, his exploits on the border (he was an army-man), the friends he kept, those he loved, and those who loved him back. I have all of this information about a man who is a veritable stranger. The grief that is not mine, and yet I am a part of it. If healthy grieving is about sharing the load, then it is indeed a load that is shared by everyone on her friend list as they support her through this journey. But where does the journey end? Is lifelong grief the side dish that comes with modern grieving?

In cases like Anjali’s the grief of death sometimes turns into a celebration of life. It’s been months now since Anjali’s husband passed away. There’s a recent photograph of Anjali beaming alongside another woman. The caption reveals that the two of them connected post the death of their husbands. Her new friend had found resonance and comfort in Anjali’s posts, and had reached out to share her story of loss with someone who would understand. The tributes for Jacob aren’t just a means of catharsis for his widow, but a platform for people with similar experiences to lean on each other and grow.

When it comes to grieving and loss, the internet then is playing to its purest form: An exchange of ideas, a congregation of feelings. Despite our anger with how it has evolved into fake news and trolling and all other kinds of hell, it also remains a power for good, an evolutionary space for human interaction. When it comes to grieving, the internet is teaching us that loss may be inevitable, but suffering alone is not.