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Social media has changed the way we mourn


The loss of a loved one is an experience that transcends social, cultural and religious barriers. As a universal and unavoidable human experience, the impact of grief has been studied since Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia” in 1917.

Social media has changed the way many people experience loss and express grief. Information technology changed the forms and functions of the obituary. With radio, the tribute could be read or announced; with television, honouring the well-known became prime-time programming ‘specials’.

The social media represents a step forward of both in expanding the potential reach of reverence. Whether social media help us deal with a loss or transform the way we grieve is a relatively new field of study.

Grief is complex. Emotions can manifest in many different ways and at different times. It is not a linear process and there is no manual on how to mourn. While social media can bring people together after a death, it can also create heightened feelings including misunderstandings or negative statements.

Tributes to deceased loved ones on social media are one of the best approaches to honour a person who has left this world.

Social platforms bring a new dimension connecting people and communities that can share memories, commemorate life events, condolence, acknowledgment and a sense of belonging. This connection can help reduce the pain people feel after a loss.

One of the motivations behind grieving on social media is that it unites large groups of people to feel sad together. Many express their sorrow for the public in a manner that can be endorsed by the online community. Some feel they cannot miss the chance to make negative comments based on whatever reasons they have. This is one of the pitfalls of social media.

Mourning is becoming a visual spectacle in the digital world. Pictures showing the grave with the online address of certain celebrities might be acceptable for some or a distaste for others!

Ethics should prevail in whatever circumstances; however, social media is an emotional communication tool. Interestingly, there are etiquettes when grieving on social platforms. Technology and social media, somehow have democratised death and grief by providing opportunities for people to talk about ‘demise’ via memorial groups, walls and pages, videos, forums, etc. Contemporary research has found both positive and negative outcomes related to the use of social media platforms in the grieving process.

Nonetheless, death is a difficult topic, if not a taboo subject while grieving is a lengthy and individualised experience.

Death studies scholar Dr Candi Cann in her book Virtual Afterlives: Grieving the Dead in the Twenty-first Century explores the virtual phenomenon of grieving.

In some countries, people utilise apps to leave offerings; in other countries, augmented reality is already in use. Avatars have the potential to be developed as computers become more sophisticated, the author points out.

For Cann, the dead living on through social media is a dramatic cultural shift, but as she warns, one just has to wait to see where technology goes. For Dr Cann, we are just crawling on the possibilities of the digital world in memorialising the dead.

Studies on both celebratory and reactions to death, mourning, grieving and melancholy is more than 100 years since Freud’s published material. In Freud’s claim, in ‘mourning it is the world which has become poor and empty’ and we get ourselves lost in melancholy — the internalisation of the loss — that is when the Internet becomes an important tool in our grieving process.

The grieving online is about the deceased as much as it is about the living individual. This is not to undermine the painful feeling of one’s departure. It is a process in both spheres.

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