Social Media Shiva: Accepting Condolences on Facebook
Part II of a blog series on digitized death and mourning [Part I here]
I lost my father in September of 2009. This was before social media presence on platforms such as Facebook had permeated the generation above my own, and for this, I am very grateful. I did not have to deal with the loss of a digital father as well as an analog one. That being said, my peers and I were fully entrenched in living through social media at this time and I was therefore far from exempt from the forms of condolence that are now so common on Facebook. I still have access to the numerous inboxes and wall posts I received that day, beginning only hours after he passed,and I’d be lying if I said I have not since revisited some of these correspondences. I have also wondered for some time what role Facebook condolences play in an individual’s mourning process. On one hand, Facebook offered me an immediate and expansive support group soon after the tragic event, larger than that I might have received otherwise. On the other hand, Facebook allowed many individuals to depersonalize and distance their support, relieving them of their sense of duty without offering me the physical support I might have needed or preferred.
Amy Webb, a writer for Slate, agrees, writing in her piece “One-Click Condolences,”
Now more than ever, we are using social media and online forums to connect with each other during difficult times. When tragedy strikes, many of us are more likely to express our sadness on Facebook than in person or even on the phone…My observation is that the convenience of one-click condolences might be making the grieving process more difficult for those experiencing loss. (via)
Webb goes on to suggest that these digitized “clicks” “distance us from each other” and become “substitutes for the tangible, real-life human connections that, ultimately, we all need” (via). The digital connections excuse us from doing the often more difficult work of making a “real-life human connection.” In my case, most condolences were made via inbox and wall posts, as there was less to “like” and “share” back then and without a Facebook presence for my father. This gave more support to me via Facebook than I might have received today, when people are apt to “like” a photo and call it condolence.
That being said, I can’t help but feel that their ability to reach out via Facebook kept many friends and family members at a greater distance throughout my mourning process. With those who reached out online, I could not hear their voice, hold onto their letters, or receive a loving hug. Furthermore, I was bombarded with these online condolences. I couldn’t log on to Facebook without having them all pop up at once, and Facebook’s emphasis on temporality made me feel as though I had to read all communications right when I saw them and all at once, before they disappeared or became irrelevant. I felt rushed through and almost attacked by what should have been moments of support. Furthermore, these messages came stamped with profile pictures of happy, smiling faces and I couldn’t help but feel like a passing moment in my “friends’” otherwise boisterous and lighthearted social media existence and use.
The use of social media might have helped these acquaintances speed up their own grieving process, but it largely had me feeling left behind, as others could then more readily move on, while I was stuck mourning alone. Facebook condolences further had me focusing on so many of what I now consider to be the “wrong” things. I was wondering how my old camp counselor from Australia with whom I hadn’t been in touch for five years had even heard about the accident. I was uncontrollably frustrated and further angered that my best camp friend who lived a coast away and therefore couldn’t condole me in person had completely ignored me on Facebook, offering up no digitized support. Not to mention the inboxes I received from people I didn’t even know; these produced a confounding mix of emotions from feeling awed by the reach of those wanting to offer support to feeling frustrated that those who had no business being a part of my grieving process were given access via Facebook. None of these aforementioned preoccupations, spurred by Facebook condolences, helped me in my grieving in any significant or positive way.
Webb phrases, “Twitter and Facebook offer a lot of efficiencies, but speeding up the natural grieving process can’t be one of them” (via). As I said in a previous post, I have always been a firm believer that there is no right or wrong way to grieve. I stand by this claim. But I must also address the healthiness and repercussions of utilizing Facebook in the mourning process. Being consoled on Facebook is just one way social media and death now interact. It is hard to speak for everyone who has experienced condolence online, especially when so little research into these topics has been done. I aim here not to impose a claim that support given via Facebook after a loss is “bad.” Rather, I ask that we consider how actions, for example those of communicating in times of grief, are affected when they are translated online and that we be conscious of the disparities between social media and analog sociality.