Saturday 1 October 2016

Online grieving might seem wrong - but we better get used to it

Susan Delaney

Published 06/06/2015 | 02:30

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg

A little more than a month after the sudden death of her husband, the chief operating officer of Facebook Sheryl Sandberg has come out of mourning with a Facebook post about her grief.

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The 'Lean In' author published a powerful message to mark the end of sheloshim, the 30-day period of mourning observed in Judaism after a spouse dies. "I have lived 30 years in these 30 days. I am 30 years sadder. I feel like I am 30 years wiser," she wrote.

Her post talked about her will to move forward, coupled with an inability to understand just what the future will look like without her partner, father to her children. In less than 24 hours, it has received more than half a million likes and 40,000 comments.

Social media has added a whole new dimension to the world of grieving. Would you stream a funeral instead of actually attending? Would you text someone to offer condolences? Would you write about your own loss on one of your social media accounts?

Many of us like the traditional ways of doing things - and believe that nothing can replace the personal touch. Susan Pinker in her book 'The Village Effect' reminds us that we "have evolved for face-to-face contact". But is it possible that a social media prejudice can cause us to overlook the advantages of online grief? Are we unwittingly throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

Researchers who have looked at technologically-mediated grieving have come up with findings that might surprise you. Carroll & Landry asked college students how they would respond to the death of an acquaintance. The results suggested that the first port of call for many of the students would be to visit the deceased's Facebook page. They would be as likely to do this as to contact a mutual friend.

Similarly, a study by Bailey looking at suicide bereavement noted that Facebook was by far the most commonly used resource for grief. A study of family members who had set up memorial pages noted they used them to share news, come together and keep a connection to the deceased.

A memorial website set up after a death in many ways provides the same function as traditional mourning rites. It is a virtual place to gather, express grief, offer and receive support. Most importantly, it's a place where grief can be validated and shared.

Online sites can offer some additional benefits - they are available 24/7, it doesn't matter what time zone you live in, and you can connect with people anywhere in the world who share your grief. Through the posts, photographs and shared memories, grief can be processed and integrated.

The current theories of grief speak to the importance of engaging in dual process (both moving towards and away from grief), continuing bonds (finding a way to have an enduring relationship with the person who died) and meaning-making (the reconstruction of an identity). Online memorial groups can potentially meet these needs, whereas traditional gathering places are limited by proximity and can serve to disenfranchise family and friends who have moved away and may feel isolated.

There are disadvantages to online grief communities. For example, there is a concern about whether the bereaved can become addicted to these sites. In any normal grief trajectory, the yearning and seeking behaviour diminishes over time.

It remains to be seen whether the digital legacy will impede or hinder this process because in some ways the deceased continues to live on through these sites. Ironically, non-internet users can be disenfranchised, particularly when a young person has died. Family members may feel left out or dismayed by the posts of peers who may have known that person in a very different way. Sites may provoke interest from strangers, posts can be offensive and inappropriate (as we're less likely to filter what we write online). Trolling can be problematic, as evidenced by the appalling posts that appeared on Robin Williams's daughter's site after his death by suicide. However, early research findings suggest that while some people engage in online grieving forums for voyeuristic or sinister reasons, most have positive agendas.

The term "emotional rubbernecking" was coined by Jocelyn DeGroot to describe people who visit memorial sites of strangers to read what others have written and to post their own messages of grief. This seems to function as a means for people to cope with their own grief and may offer a healthy outlet.

It's easy to remember the past as better than it actually was, and to view the present as worse than it actually is. Grief may not have changed, but in this digital age, where and how we are grieving has changed dramatically. We don't know whether "likes" and comments will become the new handshakes and hugs in grief support. It is certainly likely that online grieving will become more commonplace.

Grieving online may not appeal to all but an awareness of this fast-evolving phenomenon and a framework for understanding it is important for any one engaged in bereavement support, particularly with younger people. In addition to memorial pages, there are some excellent grief sites that can offer support to a bereaved person.

As with everything: Caveat emptor.

Dr Susan Delaney is a clinical psychologist and Bereavement Services Manager with the Irish Hospice Foundation

Irish Independent

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