Young People and Grief in Digital Spaces

The Challenge: 

The Question: 

How are young people managing grief in the age of the internet?

The Problem: 

Dealing with grief at a young age

The Solution: 

Establish a vocabulary of digital care from young peoples' vernacular and sustain networks of mutual aftercare

Channels: 

Where do young people go to when they grief? Do they cry alone in their bedrooms? Do they logon to the internet? How do young people in grief find each other? Do they phone a friend? Do they enter a counselling centre? Do they search through hashtags and websites?

Death has never been more public than in the age of the internet. Alongside waves of #RIP[insertcelebrity] tributes and #[nameofvictim] police shooting activism proliferating on social media are viral posts of everyday people approaching grief and documenting their experience on the internet: recounting a person’s final days, parting words and gratitude from the deathbed, captures of assisted suicide and “right to die parties”, and families commemorating the deceased.

These experiences of death and loss have been augmented and prolonged with the growth of social media use. More specifically, the ways in which a social media platform is structured and the dominant culture of its users has allowed people in grief to process their loss in innovative ways – new spaces of affect are created, new paralanguage vocabularies are innovated, and new transient networks of care are formulated.

Research has emerged in various disciplines focusing on internet memorial pages (in which the deceased and/or their funeral is commemorated on a public page), digital altars and graves (in which the living pay respects to the dead via technological mediations), afterlife digital estate management (in which the transfer and privacy of internet artifacts belonging to the deceased are negotiated), and even RIP trolling (in which trolls hijack Facebook memorial pages with abusive content). There is even an academic journal and a handful of institutes dedicated to “Death Studies”.

For instance, monuments.com enables clients to personalize cemetery headstones with a QR code. By scanning the QR code with a smartphone, users are led to an interactive website where they may upload images and text of well wishes to the deceased and their family, or contribute to building their family heritage through stories or family trees. Users are also able to re-share their post on more mainstream social media.

As an anthropologist and ethnographer of digital culture, I have a comprehensive understanding of such practices. But when my younger sister passed away earlier this year, the ways in which her friends expressed and managed their grief in digital spaces led me to discover a rich repertoire of coping mechanisms, exchange of affect, and mutual aftercare in a vernacular created by young people who grew up with the internet - these really moved my heart and encouraged me to examine young people and grief in digital spaces.

But just what is mutual aftercare? Often after a global grieving event such as large-scale natural disasters or spates of violence, strangers would gather in public spaces that transform into transient sites of solidarity. With candles, flowers, and written tributes in tow, strangers come together to process their grief, share their grief, and lend support to those in grief. Bodies who are not familiar with each other are motivated by the immediate, tangible, and tactile presence of other bodies in an enclosed space to disperse emotions they would usually restraint, and dispense care they would usually withhold when the group’s motivations are briefly aligned. Sociologist Emile Durkheim refers to this as “collective effervescence”. This is ‘aftercare’, or the care one offers to others after a hurtful experience. When people come together to publicly acknowledge their pain and simultaneously offer care and concern to fellow others in pain, this becomes a network of ‘mutual aftercare’. Young people seem to be doing similar things in digital spaces, and I wanted to find out how.

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Being a young person in my mid-twenties for whom the internet and social media is second nature, I seamlessly took to my blog to make sense of my grief and loss. I wrote about my experiences of “holding space” for my sister in her final days (see also Heather Plett), and about learning to declutter physical artifacts despite my abstract emotional attachment to these things. I also wrote about how I felt when Facebook friends began “deep-liking” my old posts on grief and how it impeded my progress and recovery. As much as I felt hurt and disappointed by these peers, I could not justify my anger knowing that digital etiquette is not universal – knowing how to approach someone in grief on social media or how to express grief on social media is not actually “common sense”. Digital etiquette varies across personal beliefs and cultural norms, and is highly dependent on the context of interpersonal relationships and the norms of a social media platform. In other words, digital etiquette surrounding grief has to be taught, learnt, and practiced.

I was both a young person managing grief in digital spaces and an ethnographer invested in understanding everyday practices through intimate anthropological inquiry. To do this, I conducted personal interviews with young people who self-reported using digital media (i.e. the internet, social media, devices and artifacts, non-analogue spaces) to manage their grief. I started with friends in my sister’s social groups, made open calls to undergraduates in local universities, and amassed informants via snowball sampling.

I wanted to understand what young people did on the internet to recover and how this differed from analogue coping mechanisms pre-social media. I wanted to learn how they constructed solidarity, conveyed empathy, and maintained networks of mutual aftercare. Some also showed me their smartphone apps so that I could study how they crafted content, ranging from emotive Instagram captions of meaningful photographs to extensive digital catalogues of every tactile item the deceased has ever touched.

I learnt that a vocabulary of grief was quietly emerging among young people. For instance, emoji and emoticons were especially significant as a paralanguage. Some reported that “when words fail”, or when they “had no strength” to craft responses back to friends who had sent them condolences, they would mobilize emoji or emoticons to acknowledge receipt, demonstrate reciprocity, or express gratitude. One person who had lost his father to a critical illness said that while “the adults” in his family did not seem to articulate their grief and loss to each other (“they strictly never said anything about it in the house”), those in his generation such as his cousins took to Facebook to comfort each other via status updates and follow-up comments. Another young person began a groupchat on the messaging app WhatsApp and recruited friends of the deceased from all walks of life into the chat. They used the groupchat as a semi-private outlet to share their thoughts without having to worry about self-censorship – many of them felt Facebook was “too public”, that email was “too impersonal”, and that meeting in person was “too soon”, “too painful”, or “too awkward”. As such, the space of a groupchat accorded them the freedom to process grief more transparently among empathetic others in a safe space; the groupchat became a space of mutual aftercare.

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The need to understand young people’s grief in digital spaces became clearer to me as I began consulting and conversing with healthcare professionals in palliative care. One hospice nurse expressed that as a patient approaches their end of life, most family members would single-heartedly focus all their effort and affect on that one person. Upon the death of their loved one, many people are suddenly hit with grief all at once and are unable to transit into care for each other, or “care for the living”. In other words, despite social workers and counsellors preaching the value of “care chains”, many people who are deep in grief simply do not have the mental capacity and physical resources to plan for self-care or mutual aftercare.

Another doctor reported seeing an increasing number of young patients in their late teens or early-to-mid twenties. Sorrowfully recounting a memorable incident in which her young patient instructed her to post a specifically-worded status update on his Facebook after death, she came to realize that young people deeply valued their digital estates as platforms to communicate gratitude and farewells even on their deathbed. In a handful of other instances, young patients requested for their doctors and counsellors to add them on Facebook or to read their blog in order to access sentiment they felt incapable of articulating in person, in physical spaces, via traditional media

Despite the very crucial work that such palliative staff engage in, much of this work is negotiated ad hoc on-the-go as they “play by ear”. Most staff do “what feels right” based on their individual relationships with their patients, or on their personal concepts of etiquette and ethics. In other words, once we have a better understanding of how young people grief in digital spaces, palliative healthcare workers can be equipped to guide their young patients and clients using their preferred coping mechanisms, devices, and vocabulary. To a generation for whom death and grief are increasingly public spectacles, such care will be crucial to preserving the mental well being of cohorts to come.

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Have you ever commemorated the death of a loved one in digital spaces? What did you do? How did others respond to you?

Whenever you witness someone sharing their grief on social media, how do you feel? Does it motivate you to respond to the person in particular ways?

How can we use social media more conscientiously so as to create spaces for mutual aftercare? What can we do for each other in digital spaces whenever a global grieving event occurs?

We would love to hear from you.

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This article was written by Dr Crystal Abidin for OpenCare Research, Edgeryders. Crystal can be contacted at wishcrys.com. The production of this article was supported by Op3n Fellowships - an ongoing program for community contributors during May - November 2016.

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Comments

Cousin

Nadia's picture

Hi Crystal.

I am sorry for your loss. This is a difficult topic to write about and not sure how to go about it. But I'll just go ahead and try. Reposting your questions here with an attempt at answering them below:

  • Have you ever commemorated the death of a loved one in digital spaces? What did you do? How did others respond to you?
  • Whenever you witness someone sharing their grief on social media, how do you feel? Does it motivate you to respond to the person in particular ways?
  • How can we use social media more conscientiously so as to create spaces for mutual aftercare? What can we do for each other in digital spaces whenever a global grieving event occurs?

Four years ago a favourite cousin died in a car accident. Her facebook page is still up and people use it as a memorial site. Sometimes her icon pops up unexpectedly in my feeds and it floors me everytime. I couldn't go to the funeral: it still feels surreal, like she might show up at any time, and the "active" facebook account isn't helping.

I am a private person- If and when I do post about anything it is with a lot of consideration. I rarely post about someone while they are alive if it is not to share something they themselves intended for public consumption. Posting about someone else's death feels like a violation of their agency and privacy. They can no longer have agency over the narrative spun about them and it somehow adds insult to the injury for me.

When I witness others sharing their grief I usually get in touch via a PM. Asking how they are and offering a shoulder to cry on if they need it. Commenting feels to exposed, like participating in a spectacle orchestrated by FB. Did you ever watch "We Live in Public"? I did many years ago and it has definitely shaped how I feel about social media.

Using Social Media more conscienscously....mmm I don't know. What immediately comes to mind is that the business models of commercial social media platforms is advertising based "fast" media. I ask myself what effect this has on the dynamics of grief, which are slow and somehow not very condusive to selling anything - except for membership in cults or possibly self-help literature.

In my parents cultures grief is a shared experience, there are a lot of social rituals for processing it have written about it in Life and Death at the UnMonastery. I recently came across something called Sunday Assembly. They have set up a secular equivalent to the sunday sermons at church to address the lack of spaces for social communion and other rituals which are key to cementing strong communities. Somehow I feel social media can be used to grow these kinds of movements and to connect a critical mass of people to them. So that when grief strikes, the individual is embedded in a nurturing local community that can help them heal.

My two cents..

I don't know if it relevant to your work

Hi Nadia,

wishcrys's picture

Hi @Nadia,

Thanks for your thoughts. I'm sorry to hear about your cousin and share in your experience that these fleeting witnessing of the social media profiles of the dead are a jarring juxtaposition that solicits the grieving process all over again. Yet, many of the young people I interviewed expressed that this presence brought them comfort and helped in their recovery, because the memory of their loved one is permanently embedded into their social media networks and uses, and the digital footprints they share can be achived and memoralized on the digital platform of social media (they pay less attention to the public nature of some of these platforms).

Memorialization of the dead for the dead who can no longer speak for themselves is indeed tricky. I think there is an implicit hierarchy of grief and proximity among the loved ones of the deceased that influencers who gets to have a say. I personally feel a little put-off when folks of super-distant, loosely aggregated, weak social ties excessively express their grief over my sister, especially when some folks start comparing the authenticity and intensity of their grief. But I remind myself that it is not in my place to police how people grief, because we all cope in ways that help us. So I end up putting aside some of these negative feelings, and reach out to those in the 'inner social circle' for mutual aftercare. 

A way of caring for those remaining..?

Noemi's picture

I have one such example and it seems that the more distant relatives or friends posting are trying to support those closest "in rank", albeit from afar. It's almost as if trying to show that they care, maybe for the same reason @Patrick Andrews mentioned - because they don't know how else. 

"(Mutual) aftercare" is an interesting word I will remember, thank you for introducing it.

I had no idea

Alberto's picture

Wow, @wishcrys . This is a beautiful, well researched post. 

I am definitely not young anymore, and I guess I am still moving within the paradigm of "mourn, then move on". Actually, my understanding is that you mourn exactly to make peace with your loss, so that everybody can move on. People in my circles keep memories and memento of those who passed away, but they do not want them to be too interactive.

This is why the famous Black Mirror episode about digital afterlife was so disturbing. The protagonist was flailing about, unable to move on, as the AI occasionally manages to make a convincing simulation of her dead husband. Convincing, that is, to her: we, the spectators, are not fooled. We shake our heads as she holds on to the simulacrum. We see her doing almost all the cognitive work to build the illusion of an ongoing relationship. 

This is a well known bug in our cognition: we antropomorphize. In computer science, this was first exploited by the famous ELIZA program in 1966. psychological research around it established that 

"[...] even if fully aware that they are talking to a simple computer program, people will nonetheless treat it as if it were a real, thinking being that cared about their problems." – source

I had a friend who was very active on social media – in fact one of its early users, and author of a 2003 book thereabout. When he passed, I unfollowed his accounts. The last thing I want is a digital ghost haunting my feeds. 

Hi @Alberto,

wishcrys's picture

Hi @Alberto,

I responsed to some of these in my reply to Patrick below. I think the key distinction between the infamous Black Mirror episode and other forms of memorialization is the conflation of representation of a person with the actual person. When we mourn through artifacts and practices, we remember selective attributes of the dead and memoralize the things significant to us. But we seek not to replicate, copy, reduplicate these sensations and connections. They are nostalgia rather than replication, which is probably why concept behind the BM episode was so arresting - it sought to replace the dead rather than remember him. 

great post

Patrick Andrews's picture

@wishcrys

Thanks for this. I suffered a loss many years ago and couldn't understand the reaction of the people around me. It was if they allowed me a month or two to "get over it" and then I was expected to move on. Some good friends couldn't bring themselves to mention the dead person's name or admit she ever existed - as if it would be too painful. Yet I wanted to talk, and talk about her. But I got the message and shut up too, to everyone's relief it seemed. I remember crying in front of my brother a few months later and he didn't know how to cope. But he hadn't been taught that expressing emotions is normal and human. I would be delighted if the coming of the digital age can have a positive impact in tis respect, enabling people to express their grief, and their concern for the grieving, more boldly and freely. 

Hi Patrick,

wishcrys's picture

Hi @Patrick Andrews

I echo your sentiments and feel that grieving does not have to be temporal. We tend to associate a negative connotation with grief - that the griever "has not moved on", is "affecting others", is "bothersome" - that moralizes the different beliefs and practices people have about the dead. In some cultures, the dead are permanently embedded into the daily lives of the living, such as when Taoists pray to their ancestors via altars, or when the Japanese pay respects to their dead in mediated ways through digital budisan on apps and websites. For some cultures/some of us, these everyday integrations bring comfort and recovery more than any prescribed grieving period will, and digital media are certainly helping to normalize these options.

What could space for this kind of "meta" conversation look like?

Nadia's picture

It's such an important topic in contemporary life which has ties to so many other domains of life, and politics. I find that a reflective conversation with some kind of "distance" such as this one helpful for handling the feelings. And for sensitising others/ building literacy around how to help/support the grieving process. Somehow this is being built around mental health especially depression. Grief? Not yet...

Wondering...

Alberto's picture

... if @ybe has found evidence of "digital grieving" in her work on trauma. Might this be a tool? Where the Trauma Tour is going there is going to be a lot of grieving... 

@wishcrys

definitively

ybe's picture

I often recommend digital grieving. I kknow a number of sites that 'help' people grieving by providing nformation, testimonials, sharing stories, proposing  exercices or rituals,... I think it is a great tool, especially for youngsters - since 'being online' is almost natural to them.

Also, for persons with few ressources, who feel very lonely, the internet, 'a digital community' is often their only link to the outside world. And their very first attempts in meeting and going into this outside world.

 

Amazing post...

evelina's picture

There is always light somewhere.. and light comes in through the places where scars used to be..

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