I recently experienced my first Facebook-era death. It had been several years – long before the ubiquity of social media – that I had last lost a relative, and I quickly discovered that experiencing loss and grieving online comes with a unique set of pros and cons.
I learned of my uncle’s stroke the old-fashioned way: via phone. My parents and I kept in steady contact that way over the next 36 hours, but it was Facebook that filled me in on certain details about my uncle’s status and my relatives’ whereabouts. The social networking site also enabled me to quickly express support, both before and after he passed, for family members scattered across the country. (“My heart goes out to you,” I posted on the wall of one of my cousins.)
I was 1,840 miles away from the hospital where my uncle lay, but the keyboard brought us closer. Being on Facebook helped me feel less isolated and helpless; if nothing else I could “like” someone’s comment on the need for prayers and positive thoughts about my uncle. I could feel like I was doing something.
My uncle had a warm, wonderful smile, but seeing it at that moment felt like a punch in the gut – another reminder that he was gone. As long as I was on Facebook, avoidance wasn’t an option.
But there were definite down-sides to being so connected (and yet so far away). When one relative wrote several hours after the stroke, “Things don’t look good,” it filled me with additional angst and left me with only questions. Did something just happen that I didn’t know about? Had she just received new information from his doctors, or was she merely conveying a general concern? I had no way of knowing; it felt inappropriate to ask in the comments section.
And after my uncle passed, it became impossible when on Facebook to escape what had happened. I logged in the morning after to be greeted with his photo; my cousin had just changed his profile picture to one of his dad and it was the first thing I saw in my newsfeed. My uncle had a warm, wonderful smile, but seeing it at that moment felt like a punch in the gut – another reminder that he was gone. I felt the same way later that day, when a link to the obituary was posted. As long as I was on Facebook, avoidance wasn’t an option.
Well before my uncle’s stroke I had a conversation with Stanford psychiatrist Elias Aboujaoude, MD, about the potential pitfalls of using social media at times like these. “The challenge is to avoid the tendency, online, to speed up and dumb down whatever we are engaged in,” he told me. “Grieving is complex and difficult, and it takes time, and if it feels simple, easy or more efficient online, then maybe we are diminishing the process somehow.”
My grieving didn’t necessarily feel diminished, but I can’t help but feel that the connections I made last week were somewhat artificial: Though Facebook made me feel close with my far-away family, I was still technically (physically) alone with my grief. And as handy as Facebook is, it couldn’t deliver what I needed the most while mourning: a hug.
Michelle Brandt is Associate Director of Digital Communications and Media Relations, Stanford University School of Medicine. She blogs at Scope.