Is Mourning Online Harmful?!

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Heading: Social Media And Grieving

Public displays of grief are far from new.  In fact, the act of expressing grief has always been a very public affair.

Wakes, funerals, and memorial services, sharing memories of a deceased loved one, rushing to the aid of the bereaved, sending sympathy cards and flowers, are all highly public—and deeply entrenched—social traditions.

However, using social media and online forums as a way to publicly express grief is a new phenomenon and a by-product of the digital age we live in.

There are mixed feelings about this, to say the least.  Some think it’s the modern way to communicate.  Others think it’s lazy and impersonal.

And there is a lot of confusion about when grieving online is appropriate.  “What should I say?”  “What should I not say?”

If you want to learn more about the pros and cons of grieving online—and how to write appropriate Facebook condolences—we’ve got you covered.

We sat down with 3 top social media experts: Dr. Bonnie Stewart, Molly Kalan, and Dr. Jennifer Golbeck.  You will find our video interviews with them on how social media has morphed the public grieving process both insightful and fascinating.  (We certainly did!)

Finally, read about how the family of a YouTube star live streamed his funeral service.  It serves as a powerful case study on the power of social media to connect people from all around the world in the grieving process.

Heading: Dr. Bonnie Stewart

Dr. Stewart is an educator, writer, and social network researcher.

She is also a mom who has blogged online about grieving the loss of her first child, Finn.

Q: What Motivated You to Write Online About Your Personal Grief?

“On your personal blog, Crib Chronicles, you have written an entire section dedicated to coping with grief after the loss of your child,” says interview host Courtney Murdock.

“What motivated you to share your personal experiences online?” asks Murdock.

“I started that blog 10 years ago,” replies Dr. Stewart.

“[It was] a year after my first child, Finn, died as a newborn, and a few weeks before my eldest living child, Oscar, was born.

“I had [gone to] Prince Edward Island [to] Halifax, Nova Scotia on bed rest for 2 months leading up to the birth of my son, Oscar.

“I was in a hospital room that was very similar to the one that I was in a year before for the birth of Finn.

“In my pregnancy the year before with Finn, I had been airlifted to Halifax at 24 weeks pregnant because I needed more intensive care.

“And here I was again in Halifax when I was pregnant with Oscar.

“I had been keeping some friends and family informed about what was going on via mass email.

“At 32 weeks pregnant with Oscar, I found myself having ‘normal pregnancy’ experiences that I did not have with Finn because at 24 weeks, I wasn’t unmistakably pregnant.

“So at the grocery store, I started getting asked questions like, ‘Is this your first?’

“I really didn’t know how to answer that question.

“I had realized relatively quickly after the death of Finn that dead babies are not something that our culture knows how to talk about.

“So encountering people who think that they are having a random pleasantry moment, with the weight of that kind of information, which is not something that they felt comfortable with, (or that I felt comfortable with in that kind of encounter).

“However, not telling that person about my first, Finn, felt like such a betrayal to my son, Finn, who I was still grieving.

“Flash back to 5 months after Finn’s death, I realized that the grief experience was going to be a journey and a long road.

“I was in my 30’s, so I realized that if I waited until I was more healed after the loss of Finn, I might find myself still grieving his loss while also grieving the loss of my ability to parent a living child.

“So we decided to try again and got pregnant right away.

“So there I was, [at] home and a normal pregnant woman for the first time, and I found that I was having trouble dealing with that double identity.

“I was still grieving the loss of my son, Finn, while I was also so excited about the upcoming birth of my second child.

“So I needed to give myself some kind of space in my life to articulate that.

My partner suggested that I start a blog.

“I had been sending email updates to friends and family, but I kept those emails very light, as I was weary of taking up too much space with my grief.

“So Crib Chronicles was born to make room for the double voices inside of me—the grieving mother and the excited expectant mother.

“For those 6 years, it was more of an identity blog for me, and it was a private-ish space for me to put my voice and lived self.

“After I started writing, I found a massive community and network out there who were blogging and commenting on all forms of parenthood, identity and grief.

“So I found people to talk to online about things that I didn’t have anyone to talk to about in my life.

“I was the only person I knew personally to have ever lost a child outside of miscarriage.

“This was very normalizing and helpful for me to find these other voices in this community.

Q: Are There Therapeutic Benefits to Grieving Online and in Social Media?

“Are there any therapeutic benefits for expressing grief through online and social media channels? Is it a practice that you would recommend for someone struggling with grief?” asks Murdock.

“For me, it was incredibly positive, therapeutic and helpful,” answers Dr. Stewart.

“I don’t necessarily recommend it for everybody, but it was incredibly helpful for me.

“As someone who journaled [her] entire life, I had a fairly strong internal sense of voice, so I was used to writing my way through stuff, not necessarily publicly.

“Some people hate to write, so this may not be the method for them.

“However, there are video blogs about grief and social media apps, like Instagram, that provide different forms of grief expression, and grief communities online that these people might find helpful.

“Blogging is much more long form than social media posts and can be less ‘all public’ than Facebook posts and tweets.

“On Facebook, in particular, you have collapsed audiences where you are communicating with people that you know directly, but may not have talked to since high school.

“So in order to protect myself, I had to ease into sharing my blog posts on Facebook to these people who might not have known that I had lost a child.

“In the end, the blog, and sharing the blog on Facebook in that public way, became an introductory way to give people (in those grocery store scenarios) permission to acknowledge my loss.

The blog and Facebook posts have now left me a record for what it was like to be me then.

“When I go back and read blog entries from that time, I am grateful that I am not in that place anymore.

“But I do find it therapeutic to go back and see what it was like to be me then,” confides Dr. Stewart. 

Q: Can Having a Digital Legacy Help With Grief? 

“Many people who have lost a loved one, especially a child, express a fear that he or she will be forgotten,” says Murdock.

“Do you think that social media can somewhat help people with this fear because there is now a lasting digital legacy of their loved one?” asks Murdock.

“I think that it can offer comfort,” replies Dr. Stewart.

“I had a very positive experience with that and in writing about Finn and about the identities I was struggling with.

It made for a place that I could use his name.

“When I came to the point that I closed the blog, 7 years after Finn’s birth, I had written a Facebook post where I just acknowledged what I had been doing that day.

“I was running around with my young children, and then when I had the time to really reflect on the day, I noticed that it was the exact time of Finn’s birth.

And so I wrote this into a Facebook post and the amount of ambient ‘likes’ saying ‘I see you’, ‘I hear you’, ‘I remember him with you’” meant a great deal.

“That actually ended up being one of the last blog posts because I realized I didn’t need that anymore.

“It helped me understand that in this wide community, his name meant something to people, and I guess that’s all that you can really ask and do.

“And it felt like I created that small legacy, and that meant more than I could have ever expected,” says Dr. Stewart. 

Q: Has Social Media Impacted How We Support People Coping with Grief?

“Do you think that social media has impacted how we, as a society, support people coping with grief and loss? If so, how?” asks Murdock.

“I definitely think that it can,” opinions Dr. Stewart.

It certainly gives us the opportunity to be present with people when we are not physically present.

“I think that honouring lives and respecting people’s absence in other people’s lives is a huge part of building healthy communities.

“There is a reason why every culture has their own funeral and loss traditions.

“The more and more globalized our society becomes and the more geographically spread out we are from our loved ones, there are fewer and fewer ways that we can engage in these traditions when we are not physically there.

“Facebook actually is the means by which I find out a lot of news about the passing of a friend or a friend’s loved one.

“If you don’t live in the same town as the person who has died, you won’t read their death notice or obituary in the paper.

So Facebook has become a really valuable way to get this information out to people who might not hear about the death in those traditional ways.

“If you don’t live in the same town as the person, you might also not be able to attend the funeral or memorial service.

“Facebook and social media provide you with a place where you can reach out to the family of the person that has passed away and offer your condolences.

It allows a relatively ambient opportunity to express care.

“I know that some people have said that this takes the ‘human connection’ out of the experience.

“Based on what I have found in my other research, I would argue that this is something that is said by people who do not understand, or do not want to understand, the online as a connected space.

“There are narratives circling our society that screens are making us more absent and not communicating with people.

“However, I would argue that most of the time that we are looking at a screen, we are communicating with other people.

“We might find that the people we are connecting with on our screens are more interesting than the people that may be trying to connect with us right in front of us, but this is an etiquette issue not a lack of connection issue.

“I am a teacher and I teach classes online, so I see screens as a challenge for me to engage people, not a challenge to me.

“Screens are simply tools that extend our ways to connect with people.

“I do not think [of] online versus offline grieving as [being] in competition with each other.

“I think a person can grieve in both [spaces] differently.

“For me, online grieving opened up spaces for me that did not exist face to face.

“I knew almost immediately when my son died, after experiencing interactions with people, that people do not know what to say and are uncomfortable talking about death.

“This discomfort often gets unloaded onto the grieving person.

“There is no public space to say to someone, ‘My baby died,’ in face-to-face interactions.

“If you sat down on a park bench next to someone and said, ‘My baby died,’ they would just look at you in shock and not know what to say.

“Online gives you the space to say this.

“Many people say that they don’t like seeing that kind of stuff on Facebook, for example, but I would argue that that is their problem, not the problem of the grieving person.

“Because platforms on social media have so many different options of audiences, private and public, so you can tailor who you want to see this content and who you would like to shield it from for your own protection.

“For example, you might not want all your relatives seeing these posts to protect yourself from their discomfort.

“Social media brings you the capacity to find other people who are grieving, especially for people in under-resourced areas that might not have support groups, or people your age who have any sense of what you are going through.

“Even if there are, you might find that expressing yourself or communicating with others who express themselves better in writing is just more comfortable for you.

Social media gives you more options for grieving, rather than replacing face-to-face interactions of grief.

“Grief is also a very long process, and we tend not to be very good at supporting people through the long arc of it.

“I think that online communities provide a far better long-term system of support than face-to-face interactions if you put the time to seek out the community that you need,” advises Murdock. 

Q: What is the Future For Grieving Online and Through Facebook Condolences?

“What do you think the future holds for grieving online and through social media?” asks Murdock.

“I don’t think that social media will go away and I know that grief will never go away,” states Dr. Stewart.

“My concern about social media generally is that the connected participatory spaces on all fronts of human identity and life are often being coopted by monetizing opportunities.

“As a result, in the future we will probably see increasing search engine optimization types of operations at work where if a person would search for a community of fellow grievers, they might find things that are being sold rather than that actual community.

“So we might find that we need higher levels of digital literacy to actually find these communities in the future.

“But, at the same time, I also think that we also need to figure out how to work with legacy pieces.

“I had a friend who was a huge part of my early mommy blogging experience and a huge part of the overall community.

“Her name was Susan and she passed away from a very aggressive form of breast cancer.

“After she died, she left this huge legacy and digital body of work online that left a narrative of her experiences as a mother and as someone grappling with dying.

“She also left a massive network of peers and colleagues who absolutely loved her.

“In the years after she died, because of the weird ways algorithms work, she would pop up as having ‘liked’ a product on Facebook, or she would pop up on Twitter as people were remembering her.

“So she kind of continues to have this half-life online and the feelings of joy and sorrow when I see her presence online intersect with my day.

“We are more and more experiencing these things and are facing questions about how we manage legacy accounts and what the etiquette is for expressing grief on these accounts.

“We don’t have answers to all of these questions and we, as a society, are making them up as we go.

“So we need to start having more of these conversations about grieving in the digital space to get to those answers,” states Dr. Stewart.

Heading: Grieving on Social Media With Molly Kalan Interview

We sat down with Molly Kalan, another social media expert, who wrote her master’s degree thesis on how we express grief and condolences on Facebook.

Q: Why do People Find Comfort in Using Social Media to Express Grief?

“Why do you think people find comfort in using social media to express grief, when these feelings are so personal, but these forums are so public?” asks interview host Courtney Murdock.

“I think that one of the biggest reasons that people feel so comfortable sharing these feelings online is that there is a community of other people online,” states Kalan.

“This community makes people feel very supported when they are sharing their feelings.

“Something as simple as Facebook’s ‘like’ button is a way that people can show their support to someone who has expressed their grief online.

“I also think that social media platforms really provide access to people who are unable to physically attend the wake or funeral of someone that they are grieving.

“Social media provides these people with a venue to express grief and condolences instead of only being able to think of it themselves,” says Kalan.

Q: Why Interact with a Loved One’s Facebook Profile After They Have Died?

 “Why do you think that some people find comfort in interacting with their loved one’s social media profiles after they have died?” asks Murdock.

“A huge part of that to me is that the profile is a symbol of that person and who they were when they were alive,” explains Kalan.

“So instead of visiting a loved one’s grave and talking to them, which a lot of people feel uncomfortable doing, these profiles provide people with a more natural place to interact with the person as these profiles resembles who they were when they were alive.

Social media profiles also tend to be a place where someone’s life is celebrated.

“People can share stories, photos and memories of the person and in this way they are continuing to add to that person’s legacy and celebrating their life after they have passed away instead of just mourning their loss.

“Using social media to grieve is still a form of a mourning, but in my experience it tends to be much more celebratory,” says Kalan. 

Q: Has Social Media Impacted How We Support People Coping with Grief?

“Do you think that social media has impacted how we, as a society, support people coping with grief and loss?” asks Murdock.

“Absolutely!” affirms Kalan.

“I think that social media is a place where there is a community of people that you can reach out to and who are there to support you.

“Whether or not this is on someone’s Facebook profile or on a grief support group where you can share your stories and support one another.

“I don’t think this is necessarily positive or negative, but I also think that social media really extends the grieving process publicly.

“People are able to see the anniversary of someone’s death on their newsfeed, or their birthday, or other milestones.

“And this can give people the opportunity to share their grief and get support on these particularly difficult or memorable occasions.

“I also think that it brings grieving back into our lives in a way that has been missing over the last 50 years.

“I think that death and dying over the last 50 years has been really sequestered to hospitals and not really talked about openly in public.

“So I think that social media is helping make a shift towards encouraging conversations about death and dying outside of that ‘hospital room experience’,” explains Kalan.

Q: Has Social Media Opened Conversations About Death and Dying?

“Do you think that the introduction of social media has impacted society’s willingness to openly discuss death and dying?” asks Murdock.

“Yes, absolutely!” replies Kalan.

“I think that social media has made people more quick to offer words of support and condolences and I think it opens up that circle of who can share those feelings.

“A platform like Facebook and other social media platforms kind of democratizes the relationship between the different people who are grieving.

“Family, friends, and coworkers, are given equal weight so all of these people can participate in lending support.

“I do think that social media has also impacted society’s willingness to discuss death and dying in a negative way as a lot of people are quick to judge what other people post.

“I think that this causes a lot of people to feel hesitant to participate in these conversations out of the fear of being judged, or that they might say the wrong thing and upset someone else, or over-step your boundaries.

“It definitely changes the way that we think and talk about death and dying, but it opens it up to the public in both positive and negative ways,” explains Kalan.

Q: Does Social Media Help Us Remember Loved Ones Who Have Passed Away?

“At Love Lives On, we believe that it’s vital to celebrate the legacies of our loved ones and to keep their memory shining brightly,” says Murdock.

“Do you think social media has a role to play in fostering remembrance of people who have gone before us?” asks Murdock.

“I definitely do!” states Kalan.

“I think that any profile that someone creates before they pass away is going to be something that they created, in their image.

“And it is something that their friends and family can go to for years after to feel close to that person, to remember how they lived, and to add to their legacy.

“Often times, it is a place that photos are shared.

“People post new photos of events, occasions or adventures that they have had that they wish that that person could have been there for.

“It’s a way to keep that person’s memory alive in the present, as well as to celebrate who that person was when they were alive,” says Kalan.

Q: Are There ‘Social Etiquette Rules’ for Mourning on Social Media?

“Are there any ‘unwritten rules’ of social etiquette when it comes to expressing grief and condolences online?” asks Murdock.

“I think that it is a little complicated still because it is such a new experience,” says Kalan.

“A lot of the people that I talked to in my research are relatively young and so it was the first time that they had really experienced a loss.

“So there is an element of trying to figure out how to deal with the loss in general, and then also how to deal with expressing feelings on social media.

What I found in my research is that people tend to wait and see what other people are posting on Facebook and on that person’s profile.

“Then, they kind of assess their relationship to the deceased and compare it to their own to determine what is appropriate for them to post.

“For example, the best friend or parent of a deceased person might post a more lengthy post.

“Someone might see that and think: ‘Okay I am not as close with the deceased as this person is, so I should be posting less than they did.’

“This might not be a conscious decision, but this is largely the reaction that I got in my research.

“People are trying their best to gauge their place and their role in this online grief community and don’t want to step on anyone’s toes.

“I also think that there are some unwritten rules about how long you should interact with a profile after the person has died.

“People who were not as close to the deceased might feel a little uncomfortable posting on their profile for extended periods of time.

“At the end of the day, people have different comfort levels in posting on Facebook in general, and grief related posts in particular, and we need to remember that people grieve in different ways and we need to be more tolerant.

“I think that these social conventions might develop over time with more use, but right now it is very individual based,” explains Kalan. 

Q: How Should Facebook Condolences Differ to In-Person Condolences?

“How should our online interactions with a grieving person differ from how we would speak with her in person or on the telephone?” asks Murdock.

“My personal opinion is that when you are on the phone with someone who is grieving, you should let them guide the conversation,” advises Kalan.

“It is more about listening to that person and gauging what they need.

“If they don’t want to talk at all about the person who has died or their grief, then it can fall on you to say, ‘Let’s talk about something else,’ and then guide the conversation.

Online is a great place where you can send a note just saying, ‘I’m thinking of you,’ or, ‘I’m here if you want to talk’.

Calling someone on the phone or talking in person is a great way to be there to listen if they need that.

“On Facebook and other social media platforms, expressing condolences using this forum can add to the archive and the legacy of that person,” states Kalan.

Q: Are Young People More Likely to Mourn on Social Media?

“During your extensive research on this subject for your thesis, did you find any correlation between age group and the use of social media to express grief?” asks Murdock.

“In other words, is Generation Z, which is more digital savvy than any other generation, more likely to turn to social media during a time of sadness and loss?

“Or is the use of social media to express grief increasing across all generations?” adds Murdock.

“I do think that it is increasing across all generations,” answers Kalan.

“My research focused on students and a lot of them were experiencing their first real loss, and so expressing grief in general was new to them.

“I do think that they will continue to use this platform as they get older and suffer more losses.

“In terms of other generations, I think it really follows the trend of people using social media in general.

“Older generations are increasingly using social media.

“My mom and my grandma are both on Facebook and they are both active in these conversations so I really think it depends on who is on the platform.

“So, from what I’ve seen, I think it’s pretty even across generations.

“However, one thing to think about is what channel did people use most to communicate with the person who has died when they were alive.

“For example, a lot of college students keep in touch with friends through Facebook and Facebook chat or text message, so using these platforms to express grief after that person has died might just feel more natural to them.

“It feels the same as it did when they were alive.

“So in this way I think that people who have grown up with Facebook and use it as a primary way of communicating might find it more comfortable to use Facebook to express grief.

“But in terms of the number of people using it to express grief, I think it’s pretty even across all generations,” states Kalan.

Q: Are There Any Downsides to Mourning on Social Media?

“Are there any downsides to using Facebook and other social media platforms to express grief?” asks Murdock.

“I think that there are a few,” says Kalan.

“The one that I think is very prevalent is that a lot of times when people express grief on Facebook, there are a lot of people chipping in and offering their condolences, so you can kind of feel like you don’t need to comment because everyone has already said what you want to say.

“Maybe you would have called that person, but you see on Facebook that everyone is already commenting and you are just watching it happen and feel as though you don’t need to say anything or you’re uncomfortable adding to it.

“So this can really result in you watching the grieving happening, but not participating in the process and working through your own emotions.

“So that is something to be aware of.

“Another thing to note is that when someone dies, in a way it reflects back on us.

“Grieving is more about us than it is about the person who died.

“So something that I think we could see happening in the future is this moving away from thinking about death as something that is going to happen to us.

“With social media profiles living on and people continuing to engage with loved one’s online profile after they have died, it can become hard for people to grasp death and see an end.

“So even though we engage with these profiles and interact on social media after a person dies, we really need to make sure that we work through what it means when someone dies and what it means for our own mortality,” explains Kalan. 

Q: In the Future, Will There Be Virtual Cemeteries Instead of Real Cemeteries?

“Is it conceivable that in the future society will dispense with real cemeteries in favour of digital or virtual cemeteries?” asks Murdock.

“I think that is interesting but I don’t see that happening in my lifetime,” opinions Kalan.

“Could it ultimately happen? Maybe.

“I think we are on our way to something like that where people are thinking about other options beyond getting buried in a cemetery.

“The rate of cremation is a lot higher than it used to be and there is a lot of fragmentation in how people choose to be buried.

“There is an organization called The Urban Death Project and they are trying to deal with these types of questions about: ‘What do we do when we run out of space?’

“It is simply not possible to keep burying people in a cemetery, so they are thinking of new traditions for decomposing a body, things like green burials.

“So this is more of what I see happening.

“What I also think will happen, and what might already be happening, is that we will be increasing the use of virtual memorials and people will be able to download someone’s social media profile onto a flash drive to have a lasting, digital legacy of who that person was.

“However, I don’t think these will necessarily ever replace real cemeteries,” states Kalan.

Heading: Grieving on Social Media Dr. Jennifer Golbeck

We sat down with Dr. Jennifer Golbeck to discuss how and why we express grief on social media.

Dr. Golbeck is a highly accomplished computer scientist and an expert in social media. Her research is conducted at the University of Maryland where she is an Associate Professor at the College of Information Studies.

She is a contributor to Slate magazine and a frequent radio guest on the Kojo Nnamdi Show. She has also presented TEDx talks on web-related topics, one of which was selected as TED’s 2014 Year in Ideas talks.

Q: Have Social Media Pages Become Memorial Pages After Someone Dies?

“In your article on social media and mourning in Psychology Today, you talk about social media pages becoming memorial pages after a loved one has died,” says interview host Courtney Murdock.

“Can you tell us about this development?” asks Murdock.

“If somebody dies on Facebook, their page still stays there,” states Dr. Golbeck.

“There are some formal things that you can do to transfer ownership or control over that page, but in general, when someone dies, their Facebook page still exists.

“People tend to go to their page and leave messages.

“Most of the time, this happens just after the person has died or friends and loved ones have just found out that the person has died.

“They come to the page and leave messages, share memories, share photos and express grief.

“It becomes a place to leave things that you remember about that person, but also to connect with other people who knew that person and kind of have a community around the mourning of their passing,” explains Dr. Golbeck.

Q: Is Grieving Online or on Social Media Impersonal or Inappropriate?

“Some people think that expressing grief online and through social media takes the ‘human connection’ out of the experience, or that grieving should be keep private and not done in such a public way,” says Murdock.

“What are your thoughts on this?” asks Murdock.

“I think that that might be a sentiment that comes from people who don’t really use social media that much,” says Dr. Golbeck.

“For those of us who use social media quite frequently, myself included, it is a way that we do a lot of our social connecting with people.

“This is especially the case when it comes to those connections that allow us to maintain relationships.

“For example, I come from a very big family and I have probably over 50 cousins and never see any of them because I live on the opposite side of the country.

“If it weren’t for social media, I wouldn’t have any idea what any of them have done for the last 10 or 15 years.

“Now I am really up to date about their lives and we talk frequently online.

Social media is really good for maintaining those kinds of relationships.

“And really, this is exactly what we do when we are mourning. We publicly mourn all the time.

“Traditionally, when someone dies, we get together for funerals with people that we haven’t seen in a long time.

“We share memories about the deceased and talk about the life they lived, and we wear black to express the fact that we are in mourning.

“So really, grieving and sharing these thoughts on social media is really just an online version of the funeral traditions that we have been engaging in for centuries offline,” explains Dr. Golbeck.

Q: What are the Advantages and Disadvantages of Grieving Online?

“In your professional opinion, what are some of the key advantages and disadvantages of grieving the loss of a loved one online?” asks Murdock.

“I think one of the main advantages is that it really does create a community,” states Dr. Golbeck.

“Even if you find yourself with a lot of people in your physical offline community who knew your loved one that died, it can still be nice that you know if you are up at three in the morning and you are feeling terrible, you can go online and there is someone to talk to there.

“Similarly, if you live far away and you have nobody that you know who were friends with or knew your loved one, you have this online community where you can talk to people about that.

“You can visit your loved one’s Facebook page and start interacting in the conversations that people are having in remembrance of your loved one which can help you feel closer.

“So the creation of this online community can be really, really helpful.

“However, from this advantage also comes one of the biggest disadvantages of grieving online.

“What can sometimes happen, especially in cases where a younger person has died, is the emergence of a competitiveness around the narrative of the person’s life that is shared online.

“For example, a lot of times when a younger person dies, a friend might share a specific memory about that person that is probably much different than the kind of vision that the parents had in their head.

“In these cases, you can really see people get very angry at each other about the ways that they are mourning and what they are sharing.

“The parents and family members might have one vision of how they want the person to be remembered, and their friends might have another version.

“So this kind of strife in mourning online can be problematic and it does happen,” warns Dr. Golbeck.

Q: Has Social Media Impacted How We Support Grieving Friends and Family?

“Do you think that social media has impacted how we, as a society, support people coping with grief and loss? If so, how?” asks Murdock.

“It gives us an interesting way to offer support,” states Dr. Golbeck.

“Before social media, if you wanted to talk to a person not in person, you could write a letter which takes a long time to write it, for that person to get it and then to respond to it and mail a letter back.

“If you want something more instantaneous, you can call them on the phone.

But in some ways, a phone call can be very invasive.

“It is saying, ‘Stop what you are doing and talk now,’ which might not be what you want to do when a person is grieving.

“Social media gives you a way to have these synchronous conversations over chat, video or typing.

“But social media also allows you to have these asynchronous discussions where you can post a photo or share a memory about the person who has died and then come back a few days later and see other people’s responses.

It gives a way of having many levels of interaction.

“You can have the immediate back and forth interaction, or you can a more informal, asynchronous conversation.

“It expands the ways that we are able to interact with people around the central topic of grieving the person,” says Dr. Golbeck.

Q: Are There Any Social Etiquette Rules for Grieving Online or Writing Facebook Condolences?

“Are there any rules of social etiquette that apply to expressing grief or condolences online? For example, is it okay to post pictures of yourself at a funeral?” asks Murdock.

“This is something that is hard both on and offline,” responds Dr. Golbeck.

“Figuring out what to say to grieving family members at a funeral service can be really tricky.

“First of all, just be respectful and know that people grieve differently.

“People might do things that you find disrespectful and it’s probably not the right time to argue about it.

I absolutely hate the ‘funeral selfie’.

“I have no problem with someone posting a photo with the person that had died from a year ago at the beach as a way of remembering the person.

“The ‘funeral selfie’—where someone posts a picture of themselves at the funeral or memorial service—is all about you.

“It’s sort of there to say, ‘Pay attention to me in my grief’.

“The ‘funeral selfie’ is most common in younger people, like high school and college students, who may have not had a lot of time or experience coping with the loss of a loved one.

“This might just be a manifestation of, ‘I just don’t know how to deal with this,’ but it comes across and very narcissistic and very selfish.

“If you need help coping, that is something that you can say. Just say, ‘I do not know how to deal with this’.

“But posting a photo of yourself at a funeral service dressed in black saying, ‘Oh what a sad day,’ is not an appropriate way to do this.

Mourning is very much a social interaction.

“There are elements of it that you do personally, but once you get beyond that, whether online or in person, there are social conventions to follow and most people are going to be offended and disrespecting the person who has died if you are doing the ‘funeral selfie’.

“So the golden rule to keep in mind when evaluating your conduct, online or offline, in relation to expressing grief and condolences is to ask yourself, ‘Are other people going to feel that you are offending the memory of that person?’” explains Dr. Golbeck.

Q: How Will We Be Using Technology in the Future to Grieve a Loss?

“How do you think that we will be using technology in the future to grieve a loss or to remember the legacy of a loved one?” asks Murdock.

“We have already seen all sorts of attempts at doing this,” replies Dr. Golbeck.

“There are websites out there that are kind of memorial pages, and some companies are completely dedicated to this. You can post a photo and people can come and have a sort of memory book.

“Facebook has formalized some ways that you can nominate a person to control your account after you pass, or if you want to make your profile a place where people can’t post.

“So there is a lot of experimentation right now around this so it will be interesting to see how it plays out.

“What I think is the core around it is that social media, and the way that we use technology in general now, is centered around the way that we connect with people that we know, that we love and that we have community with, and how we can experience whatever with them.

“And I think that grieving is just one of those things.

“I think that the ways that this will happen might look different than the ways that we see it happening on Facebook now, but I think that people will become more comfortable with the technology.

“As everybody ages, we’re going to get people in their 30’s, 40’s and 50’s who have been on Facebook and social media their entire adult lives.

“I think you will see it become more comfortable for everyone.

“Ultimately, whatever the technology is, it’s going to be a place to connect and share memories together, both immediately at the time of someone’s passing, but then also over time,” opinions Dr. Golbeck.

Caleb Bratayley's Online Memorial

For those of you who are not be familiar with the Bratayley family, they have a highly popular Youtube channel with almost two million subscribers.

Bratayley Family

The Bratayley Family (left to right: Caleb, Billy, Annie, Katie, Hayley)

Caleb Logan Bratayley and his younger sisters, Hayley and Annie, star in a reality show about their daily lives in a series named after their family: “Bratayley”. The siblings captured the hearts of fans all over the world with their engaging personalities and their every-day adventures.

Tragedy Strikes the Bratayleys

The Bratayley family was shocked and devastated when Caleb died suddenly from an “undiagnosed medical condition”.  At the time of his death (October 1, 2015) he was only 13 years of age.

In an Instagram post, the family announced Caleb’s death writing that Caleb’s death had “come as a shock to all of us. Words cannot describe how much we will miss him.”

After Celeb’s death, the Bratayley family was inundated with messages of condolences from millions of YouTube fans.  People from all around the world who had grown to love the energetic, funny, and kind-hearted young boy took to social media to express their grief.

An Online Memorial Service

With the outpouring of love and support on social media, Caleb’s family recognized the impact his life had on so many people around the world.

They decided to allow fans to see Caleb’s memorial service (and join them in saying their final goodbyes) by live-streaming it on their YouTube channel.

The result was a truly beautiful celebration of his short, yet incredibly full life.  

Over three million people watched the memorial service, which was approximately one hour long.

The memorial service began with a video tribute created from the family’s Youtube videos.  It captured the very essence of Calab:  his zest for life; his love for his family; his passion for baseball.

You could not help but be deeply moved by watching Caleb sing, play and laugh with his younger sisters.  In one particular clip, he danced around in a pioneer costume.  Caleb clearly had a great sense of humour and never took himself seriously.

This video tribute brought everyone watching the live-streamed memorial service into Caleb’s world.

The family also incorporated Instagram posts from fans who mourned the loss of Caleb and who sent prayers to the Bratayley family.  It celebrated the impact that Caleb had on millions of people around the world, and his gift of connecting with young people who saw him as a friend.

Caleb’s memorial service is a classic case study in the power of social media to connect millions of grieving people around the world in real time.


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