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How we deal with death on social media

by Laura Barcella

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When my father died, I didn’t tell anyone. Not online, anyway. And though I was aware of the magnitude of such a loss—and that people would want to know about it—I just couldn’t bring myself to announce it on Facebook.

The idea of seeing a stream of crying emojis, awkward condolences, or, worse, “likes,” roll in from hundreds of remote friends and acquaintances felt, well, intolerable. Of course, I went on to feel intense guilt about my decision not to post; guilt I still sometimes feel even seven years later. (This guilt was re-triggered in 2015 when I did share news about two of my pets dying.)

My uncertainty about how to share this sort of loss might not be that unusual, though. We live in a weird, hyper-wired world in which death updates are shared in real time, sometimes as they happen. Facebook memorials are cobbled together almost instantly; families and, at times, strangers, in mourning unite online to commiserate in groups. It’s both encouraging and a little uncomfortable how so many of us process—or are expected to process—our grief nowadays. No longer a silent, shrouded practice among those closest to us, it’s now expected that we share our pain with the world, the way we do everything else. But what if we don’t want to?

“Many people utilize social media as a highlight reel of the good things in life,” says Sarah Herstich, a licensed clinical social worker in Pennsylvania. “When their world is turned upside down, it can be difficult, and feel nearly impossible, to let people in on the fact that they’re suffering.”

That was certainly true for me. In 2010, I hadn’t even begun to realize how the loss of my father might shape my everyday existence, much less my permanent identity. (To be honest, I’m still working through that.) What I did know was that it felt like too heavy a weight to dump on my Facebook friends—most of whom didn’t know a lot about my father in the first place. As an introvert, sharing such intimate news with so many felt beyond my comfort zone in a way I simply couldn’t handle at the time.

Juli Fraga, a San Francisco-based psychologist, says this is normal. “There’s no right or wrong way to feel about loss,” she reassured me. “People should not feel guilty about the way they convey this news, and grieving people don’t owe others anything.

But why would someone (like, uh, me) choose to share certain losses on social media, and not others? Did the fact that I didn’t discuss my father but did discuss my pets make me a terrible, unfeeling ice-block of a human? Hardly, according to Fraga, who notes that the reasons one might choose to share only some things online “depends on how personal and vulnerable one feels about the loss.” She adds that the intimacy of the relationship would also certainly affect that decision. “If we desire more privacy because the loss is more complicated, we might veer away from posting about our grief in such a public manner.”

Of course, plenty of people do find comfort in posting about their losses. Social media can be a quick, savvy method to communicate news to a large group of people, and many people feel comfortable doing so. You’re already grieving; the most important thing is to do what feels right and is least stressful to you in the moment.

Another sticky issue that struck me while I tried to cope with the loss of my pets was the resentment that arose regarding precisely who acknowledged my Facebook announcement. I felt petty to be “keeping score,” but I couldn’t help but make mental notes when certain friends—some of whom I’d known since childhood—abstained from addressing my losses. This is, quite simply, “one of the tricky aspects of sharing this [kind of] news online,” Fraga says. “We can’t control how others respond to our losses, and people are tongue-tied when it comes to talking about difficult things. Know that your friend’s silence isn’t about you.”

Herstich also reminds that “posts on social media are missed all the time. The timing of the post and the current algorithm of how [they] appear are constantly in flux.” So, if you find yourself in a situation like mine, try to avoid letting any hurt or resentment fester. Herstich suggests taking your grieving offline if you find yourself keeping score or getting overly distracted by “likes” and comments. Try reaching out to friends for support IRL: “Ask a friend to go to dinner, grab coffee, or go for a walk. Let them know you are hurting and how you can be best supported as your grieve.”

If you’d feel best supported by being left the hell alone for a while, it’s perfectly OK to say that, too. Setting a boundary online by simply asking for privacy during a difficult time can be a healthy way to go, according to Manhattan psychotherapist Denise Limongello. She says, “By sending a widespread message, you [can avoid interacting] with anyone directly while still keeping your contacts updated about you. Social media can also be a great way to ensure that your friends and family realize you aren’t avoiding them [during this period].”

What about if someone else is grieving? If a friend, relative, or acquaintance posts about a death online, try to offer an appropriate degree of support—perhaps the type of support you’d want yourself. Keep in mind, however, that everyone mourns differently, so try not to judge the bereaved for how they’re handling their loss online. Show compassion, regardless of whether you feel they’re posting too much, not posting enough, or even if they’re occasionally sharing raw, awkward, or difficult emotions.

The immediate period after a death can feel incredibly isolating. Sometimes the best thing you can do is take it offline, pick up the phone, and quietly tell someone you’re there. Ask if they’d like some company, a stack of bad magazines, help around the house, or a week’s supply of ice cream. In this era of relentless status updates, the most personal approach to supporting others through their grief is often the kindest—and the rarest.

Laura Barcella

Laura Barcella is a Brooklyn-based author and freelance writer. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Marie Claire, RollingStone.com, Pacific Standard, Cosmopolitan, and more. Visit her at laurabarcella.com or on Twitter @laurabarcella.

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