We used to express our grief with black crepe, silk and veils. Women wore jewelry made from coal and cameo necklaces of their lost child or husband. We cried under covers or in parlors. And when men wanted support, they often shared conversation over whiskey at the local bar.
Today, grief can be expressed in more public ways — in the form of Facebook statuses, tweets and hashtags — and there can be a comfort in that sharing.
But after the Dec. 14 elementary school massacre in Newtown, Conn., when a nation’s collective shock was displayed like never before via social media, sociologists, psychologists and counselors are all wondering if something fundamental has changed about grieving. The only consensus so far is that no one really knows.
“It is going to be the topic of dissertations over the next 10 and 15 years,” said Maryanne Malecki, executive director at Haven of Schenectady. “We are so close to this right now, but there’s just not enough research or data out there to really know.”
Experts might not have the empirical evidence that the grieving process is substantively changed by Twitter or Facebook, but they have their suspicions that it is. And they find the emerging trend to have its benefits and its pitfalls — in much the same way that using social media to date, socialize, announce pregnancies and find jobs has its benefits and pitfalls.
When a soldier is killed or there is a fatal incident, officials withhold the news until the next of kin have been notified.
“It’s one of the conditions that few journalists object to — most of us agree that no mother should have to learn of her son’s death in the pages of a newspaper,” wrote Teru Kuwayama in 2011. But Kuwayama, a war photographer and blogger for PBS’s Idea Lab, acknowledged then that learning something first from a print newspaper was a quaint idea. Now, next of kin learn about the death of a loved one right along with the rest of the world. Sometimes, they log onto Facebook only to find what the world has known long before them.
“In the spring of 2011, we experienced three student suicides,” said Dolores Cimini, a psychologist who works at the University at Albany’s Counseling Center. “The presence of Facebook and other social media made it much more complicated for us to respond. Within minutes, students were posting “Rest in Peace” and other condolences on their sites before we, as a university, even had a chance to formally notify the families.”
Opening the door
From denial to anger, bargaining and depression, and maybe one day acceptance, the grieving are baring their hearts and souls to strangers and marginal acquaintances.
January 26, 8:32 p.m.: “I miss you so much”
Bailey Wind shared these five words with more than 9,000 followers on Twitter last weekend. Within minutes, the tweet had 17 retweets and 30 favorites. One person tweeted back: “keep your head up bailey!!!! You got this girl(:”
The 17-year-old Shaker High senior just got her neck brace off.
“My head feels like it’s 1,000 pounds,” she said, chuckling after her doctor’s appointment Thursday.
After losing her boyfriend and best friend, both Shenendehowa High seniors, in a horrific car crash Dec. 1, one she and another friend somehow managed to survive, Wind has taken to social media to document nearly every stage of grief and to share memories of her lost loved ones.
Out of support, voyeurism or maybe just innocent curiosity, thousands of people in the community and beyond began friending Wind on Facebook and following her on Twitter. They cheer her on when she’s down. They thank her for sharing memories of Chris Stewart, her 17-year-old boyfriend who died in the crash. They tell her she’s not alone, that things will get better, the pain won’t last forever.
“It keeps Chris alive in a way,” she said. “Posting pictures or sharing memories of him, it makes me feel better personally, and I think it makes other people feel better to see memories of him.”
These responses lift her spirits. And now and again, a stranger will reach out to her to say they lost someone, too.
“Random people chat me on Facebook and tell me their stories and say how I’ve inspired them, which I think is always nice,” she said.
That may not be a substitute for real human contact, but Rudy Nydegger, a clinical psychologist, believes social media has broadened support systems in a whole new way.
“I do think we’ve seen, just in recent events, how bereavement and grief is changing with social media,” said Nydegger, a psychology professor at Union College and Union Graduate College. “Especially when all of a sudden an entire community of people is grieving and supporting one another on Facebook, like we saw with the tragic Shen deaths. We’re now using social media to deal with what once were very private emotions, like grief, in a very public way.”
It had been one month and five days since her boyfriend’s death when Wind felt the blowback of her public grief. A teenage boy began tweeting that she just wanted attention. She wasn’t the first person in the world to ever lose a loved one, he tweeted, and she just liked having a lot of followers, he continued.
He wasn’t the first or last person to say something like that to Wind.
“They tell me to get over it, how I should grieve, stuff like that,” she said. “It’s really hard to ignore, to be honest. But I try the best I can.”
It shouldn’t be so surprising, says Nydegger. Look at the people who comment on Facebook memorial pages for the child victims of Newtown, calling the entire massacre a hoax.
“There can be a very broad range of support on social media, which for some people can be very helpful and beneficial. But there’s also a price for that because you also open the door to sometimes thoughtless or even cruel comments,” he said. “And that, really, is the main problem with social media. It blurs a lot of boundaries.”
Real contact helps
When someone grieves, they are at their most vulnerable, said Malecki. As executive director of Haven, a bereavement support center in Schenectady, she has spent six years helping kids and adults with the loss of loved ones.
People fret when they run into people they know at the grocery store, she explained, because their hair is a mess and they’re in their sweats and they just wanted to get in and out.
“When you’re in grief, that public face we try to put out to the world doesn’t exist,” said Malecki. “It’s torn off and you’re exposed. You’re a bunch of raw nerve endings.”
In the pre-social media world, she said, it was much easier for the grieving to control who they exposed this to and who they didn’t. People on Twitter don’t know the nuance of what you’re feeling, she added.
Grieving in the age of social media needs more research, said Nydegger. It affects social behavior and socialization patterns, and it changes the way we communicate and the very nature of relationships.
“I don’t care how many emoticons or LOLs you use, there’s not an electronic equivalent to a handshake or a hug or looking someone in the eye and saying, ‘I’m really sorry,’ ” he said.
He and Malecki both use Facebook and don’t discount the idea of using social media to find comfort in grieving.
Malecki recalled losing her husband, Jack, in 2007. He was 54 and had a massive heart attack. Over the summer last year, she posted a picture on Facebook of the two of them, enjoying dinner out at a restaurant in Albany.
“To my sweet husband, who would have turned 60 today,” she wrote with the picture. “See you on the moon, sweetie.”
Malecki felt a lot better at the end of the day when she saw the responses from her friends, family and mere acquaintances. They wrote that they missed Jack’s kind face and ironic smile, that the photo captured the humor in his eyes so well, and that it was lovely to see his face once again.