The omnipresence of social media and digital communication tools have forced us to re-evaluate how we process previously private matters such as bereavement and grief. Sarah Seaton examines how always-on connections complicate how we deal with death.
Before the social media revolution, the process of grief was mostly carried out behind closed doors. While a sympathy card was always a traditional and welcome gift, funeral ceremonies tended to be for close friends and family, with control from loved ones over who was involved in the active process of saying goodbye. But these days, in the age of social media, an increasing number of public messages of sympathy from friends to acquaintances and even work colleagues can be seen across platforms such as Facebook and Instagram.
The question becomes: is social media communication changing the way we deal with grief? Or is the outpouring of public, yet more casual, messages making bereavement an even harder road to walk?
Connections are evolving
You may well have first-hand experience of social media sympathy, whether via private message or a simple ‘thoughts are with you’ on a Facebook post. There’s no doubt that the majority of these messages are well-intentioned, but how did they make you feel? Particularly for those of us who like to grieve privately, or for those of us simply having a fragile day, a sudden barrage of messages can hit hard.
One issue with many well-intentioned people who offer their condolences (especially in the digital realm) is that it is often on their terms alone. Well-wishers will often send supportive messages from afar with no idea of the person’s emotional state in that moment, or without thinking how they would wish to be contacted. The line becomes even trickier to walk at ceremonies, where an increasing trend for taking pictures or posting updates may seem second nature to some younger attendees, but may be potentially overwhelming or hurtful for other mourners.
However, the quicker, simpler communication style of Facebook et al can also help those of us who wish to find support, often from family and friends all over the globe, faster than ever before. From forum discussions to DMs, those experiencing loss are arguably less isolated and more able to take control of the grieving process, finding the best ways to express their grief for them.
It could be said to all come down to the individual, but how can you predict how a person will react in the moment, especially when it’s often something you’re unable to predict based on their past behaviour?
Rules to abide by
A recent study into the public's attitude towards communications during significant life events has shown what we genuinely think of digital messages when it comes to sensitive subjects such as grief, and can help set some ground rules when offering condolences, or planning a ceremony.
Keep it offline
While younger generations are more open to sharing private news by social media or giving an electronic message the same significance as a traditional one, 77% of those surveyed claimed they would prefer to receive hand-written cards at significant life events. Especially among older generations, grief in particular was seen as a private experience, so unless the person has invited comments, a public post on social media is unlikely to be the most appreciated option. There was also a marked preference for more hands-on communication in times of need, meaning that ‘no phones’ funerals may be the next trend in unplugging from the tech matrix.
Personal touches matter
47% of respondents claimed that they valued both giving and receiving non-digital modes of communication for life events. The more personal a condolence can be, the better for most, and anything that feels less 'off the peg' when it comes to planning a ceremony or offering a gesture will be welcomed.
It seems that, although digital communications are more convenient, the deeply personal nature of grief means that this is one place where social media has yet to make massive in-roads. The truth is there’s no right way to offer condolences, in the same way that there’s no one right way to grieve. Think about the person you’re speaking to, and assess their personal likes and dislikes. But, if at all in doubt, take the traditional route first.