Blog Post

A Different Kind of Public Private Dichotomy: Grieving in an Online World

 

When I first had a Facebook friend pass away, I hadn’t even remembered that we were Facebook friends. This was the pre-newsfeed days; when you only really found out about friends or what was being written on pages unless you actively went to the page. I had heard in passing that someone I had known on the high school debate circuit had a tragic accident; he’d fallen from a boat in the lake and drowned. It was sad, but we weren’t that familiar with each other, and I wasn’t sure what to say, if anything. I went to his page, and saw it flooded with comments: “RIP” and “you’ll be missed” and “I can’t believe you’re gone” were repeated over and over. And there, at the bottom of the page, was a status update from him, a post talking about how he had weekend plans to go to the lake. I can still remember how eerie it was to me; the juxtaposition of this text that was written by the deceased, and the slew of comments that followed about his death. I closed the page, and moved on, it was just too strange for me to deal with at the time.

As Facebook evolved, I began to get sidebar messages suggesting that I “reconnect” with my friend who had passed. It had been almost a year—and I wondered—what would I see on his page? I went to it, out of a morbid sense of curiosity perhaps, and was surprised to see that the initial list of comments from friends had easily more than tripled in that year. On top of that, there were posts from as recent as a few days early—comments on holidays, of special memories, of missing him more each day that passed. I felt awful, and closed the page, feeling that it was wrong that I was looking upon these private sentiments, messages from people who had actually been close to him; I was just a Facebook friend, an acquaintance from years past that was sent a friend request when friending every last person you had ever met was the cool thing to do.

Since then, I’ve had two more Facebook friends pass away; I say “Facebook friends” because they aren’t individuals I would have characterized as close personal friends, or even people I had seen in the last few years. In these cases, like the previous, I felt that it was not necessarily my place to say anything on their page, after all, I probably would not have written something on that day if they were alive, so why should I get to share in the grief of those close to these people now that they aren’t?

The researcher in me needed to understand what I was going through, and once I began to read about, I realized I wasn't the only one wondering how to move forward (Time, Chronicle). Standard beliefs that permeate society about grief is that its highly personal, thus, highly private. Public displays of grief or mourning are limited to a funeral and/or wake for the deceased, and from there, it is left up to each individual within the social network of the deceased to navigate how they move forward. But in a digital age, when so much that is typically private is made public, including grief, how do we negotiate something as simple as the existance of a Facebook profile page created by the deceased?

I have now completed two articles on grief communication and social media, having conducted 30+ interviews with college students on my campus on the subject to better understand what this process means not only for how we communicate through social media, but how we come to understand what it means to grieve. Those interviewed had varying opinions on the social support they felt could be obtained in times of grief through the profile page, as well as expectations for who had the "right" to interact with the profile, and when. 

What primarily stuck out was that even though there are clearly multiple individuals who DO choose to write on the page expressing their grief, most individuals still think that the act is too private to display on a public site like Facebook. Those who did interact with the page suggested they did so more for the family and other friends, than themselves. A few individuals spoke about sending private Facebook messages to the deceased; further illustrating that the private nature (presumably, these messages will never be read) of grief. 

This public-private tension is something that is often discussed in terms of digital content; decisions to engage in information-sharing and social media enable us to share with a wider public information that might typically be viewed as "private". Yet we don't often think of it in terms of grief; and I hope that after reading this, you pause and consider what this means for you: do you think that your need to maintain a connection with a friend after they passed should supercede that of other members of the social network, who struggle with the constant reminder that is a profile page? Or do you think that each person must grieve on their own terms, and leave the Internet out of it? 

I'm currently in the process of analyzing the types of messages posted on the profile page of the deceased, in hopes of better understanding those who felt the need to communicate through Facebook post-death. 

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5 comments

Just two days ago, I noticed that an app buddy of mine (those Facebook friends we never knew but are only friends with for some game we play) had been tagged in a photo. This photo was of a man, however, and she is a woman. I clicked on it to see more and realized it was a memorial photo of a young man who had passed away. The photo itself was a school photo or something similar. All the comments on the photo were of grief just as those you described above.

I suppose I am surprised now by my reaction then. I didn't think it at all strange. I think I was at first, of course, surprised to see he was dead, but the comments themselves were sweet. Nor did I feel as if I were intruding on a private event. Part of this grief was celebration, public celebration in his life and I think perhaps many of those people would be happy to know that even if I or others didn't get to know him in life, we met him afterward and have pleasant impressions of him.

I also never thought 'this is just a Facebook photo' nor did I ever consciously think of the fact I was looking at a Facebook page. It felt no different to me than any other memorial. For me, the fact it was digital really didn't change anything and I actually never thought of it in those terms until I read your post. Anywhere we grieve is one-step removed from the person so it's all virtual in a way.

As to public v private: In physical space, cemetery plots are public. I can read the stones, I can see what people have offered. It is a space marked off from other spaces, but not closed to the public. Perhaps what is so jarring is that these Facebook places of grief are not marked off from other spaces - they are not a solemn kind of public. They are just public. They are a flippant kind of public even - little is less serious than a Facebook page after all.

You note above that our own culture has both public and private aspects to it, but you say the public are very limited. I think of 9/11 as a modern counter-example perhaps though an extreme one. Cemeteries though are public spaces for private grief. The distinction is maybe not so clear-cut.

Another difference may be the ephemeral nature of most showings of grief that are non-digital. Flowers die, viewings end, stones wear, words fade. Facebook doesn't.

Thanks for the post - it was thought-provoking. My notes here are spontaneous so feel free to disregard. :)

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Hi Emily,

 

Sorry for the delayed response, its been a hectic school week! I completely agree that 9/11 is a great example of where grief has become quite public; for Facebook more specifically there's been research looking at the school shootings at Virginia Tech (http://psp.sagepub.com/content/36/11/1555.short) and how students used the site as a way to communicate with friends and family about what had happened.

What I think becomes particularly helpful though is when we consider the ability to have the profile page of someone who passed that might not get the national attention that 9/11 or Virginia Tech did; for certain the deaths are of equal importance to those who grieve their loss, but the public attention and memorial options available for someone who was a victim of a large scale attack versus a singular instance can affect the avenues available for friends and family to grieve. 

I think you're completely right when you say it is not all that different than other memorials, but its staying nature (as you said, Facebook doesn't fade) helps those who are grieving to maintain bonds for as long as they like.

Thanks for the comments!

Natalie

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"Another difference may be the ephemeral nature of most showings of grief that are non-digital. Flowers die, viewings end, stones wear, words fade. Facebook doesn't."

The above quote was culled from Emily's response to Natalie's original post. Recent events in my Facebook universe of friends upset this statement, in that digital expressions of grief can be scrubbed from existence as well. For example, a college friend was expecting his first child, and the past few months, his Facebook page has meticulously chronicled his partner's progress with her first pregnancy. Photos were posted, status updates indicated the approaching due date, etc. Tragically, and for reasons that remain unknown, the child passed away soon after its birth. While the friend has not removed the 'expectant father chronicles' from his page, his friends have strategically removed their comments, especially comments that expressly reference the birth. In this manner, this unforeseen tragedy is memorialized, but the record of events, as currently expressed on Facebook, no longer reflect the events as they transpired.

The grieved party's page becomes a memorial of sorts, but others can selectively augment (or delete, actually) posts, comments, photos, links, and other communications from a Facebook wall, permanently altering the landscape of the memorial.

In addition to grieving, has anyone else noticed a recent increase of using social networking sites to report illness? I've had several Facebook acquaintances and colleagues whose partners have used Facebook to communicate unexpected illness. In doing so, they have to make decisions about what information to reveal and how to reveal said information to a network of family, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances-- all of whom have relationships of varying intimacy with the infirm.

While social networking sites can be a tool to communicate the frivolous or the mundane, it can also be a tool that can communicate vital information regarding health status of people within our networks; and, those within our networks become memorialized in death, as their pages sometimes live on after they're deceased. 

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Hi Asiya, 

I completely agree with both of your comments.

The ability for someone to take control of the profile page of the deceased; or for others to "scrub" away references to someone when they've passed, is just as prevelent of a topic as impression management online. In several of the interviews I did there were individuals who talked about their discomfort in knowing someone was editing the profile page of the deceased after they passed away. This was typically a parent; and the level of editing varied from adding a few new pictures, to status updates as if the parent was the deceased child saying things like "Thank you to whoever left flowers on my grave today!" This form of coping with grief is something I hope to further analyze; getting at and speaking with such a small sub-culture has proven difficult so far, though.

 

As for your comment about illness, I couldn't agree more. I'm not sure if you have the new Facebook platform Timeline (I do, I think its great) it even has built in sections where you can have a special TYPE of status update/announcement that says "I broke ____ bone" or "I have ______ illness". It is even harder when the person who is ill can't post themselves; then how do we address things? Recently my partner's mom had a grade five brain aneurysm, and the family had to decide how to address things online. They reached a conclusion that they would write Facebook "notes" as updates to share with his mom's friends and extended family. They found that it was incredibly useful- rather than fielding literally dozens of phone calls, they directed people to share and respond to the notes updating her status at the hospital. While I agree that varying degrees of relationships and intimacy can make this hard for some, I think the benefits outweigh the costs.

 

Thanks for the feedback,

 

Natalie 

 

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This is a really fascinating angle on the public-private tensions within social media communications, one which, while painful, could really clarify the concerns over porous identities as expressed within public mourning. Thanks for the provocative and thoughtful laying out of the stakes in the discussion. 

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