The Blog

The Reasons We Grieve on Social Media

What role does social media play in the grieving process? By studying trends, some researchers have been able to understand the motives and psychological focal point for this kind of activity.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.
young man headache sadness...
young man headache sadness...

The communication of grief on social media is a display that many of us have not only witnessed, but also taken part in. When a person loses someone that they love very deeply, the sadness is overwhelming. The way a person experiencing that kind of grief feels is not easily defined, but trying to understand why certain mediums comfort them can be beneficial to everyone. What role does social media play in the grieving process? By studying trends, some researchers have been able to understand the motives and psychological focal point for this kind of activity. Through online interaction, emotions are displayed and discussed in a public and social way like they never were before. This not only changes the way we handle the living, but also the deceased.

I have discovered that people use social media for three primary grieving purposes. The first is to build a bridge of perpetual existence through a deceased loved one's social pages. The second is to participate in mass grieving that exists very strongly through the Internet. And the third reason is for the condolence, support, acknowledgement and sense of belonging from the living that engage in their displays of grief.

In a study of Facebook memorial pages it was determined that most of the people wrote messages directly to the deceased, as though that person were reading it from the after life. In this study, Degroot (2012) found that the people would even reach out to the deceased through the page and ask them for guidance or protection. In a study completed by (Kern, Forman & Gil-Egui, 2013), it was discovered the "majority of pages returned showed that people posting to the RIP pages are writing in the second person (e.g., 'watch over us from heaven'). Pages written in the second person outnumber first and third person pages by a margin of nearly 2:1" (p.3). In the same study it was discovered that majority of those who had memorial pages created for them were under 25 years old and were killed in a tragic or unexpected manner. Because of this fact, those who lost the person used Facebook pages to rationalize their death and ask the deceased questions.

This displayed the existence of maintaining a relationship with the deceased and speaking to them as though he or she is able to receive messages. The posts recognized that the person was no longer living, but to an extent were formulated in a way that portrayed a sense of detachment from reality. With communication relying as heavily on technology as it does today, this makes sense. Friends and family stay in touch and share their lives with each other every day through online and mobile mediums, and therefore this kind of communication creates a very strong connection for grieving individuals. This continual existence of the deceased eases the pain of those involved because it causes them to feel as though their messages can still be received, and a part of their relationship can still continue (Degroot, 2012).

Mass grieving is another primary motivation behind grieving on social media. The Internet makes it possible to eliminate geographical boundaries and extend a close-knit community to a larger group of people to experience a loss with. Prior to the existence of social media, when a disaster occurred that affected and killed a large amount of people, the bulk of the grieving was done on a smaller scale with family and friends. People grieve on a national platform because it makes them feel as though they are not alone in their pain. There is a psychological need within the grieving process to feel as though pain is not merely isolated to the person experiencing it.

Research conducted by (Wandel, 2009) discovered that it actually creates a sort of community for grief. Wandel investigated the role that social media played among young people in the tragic incident of the Virginia Tech shootings that resulted in the deaths of 33 students. The tragedy caused the study body to have a plethora of negative emotions and go through a long grieving process. Though this institution is very large and a lot of students may not have personally known someone that was injured or murdered, they all grieved together. Facebook was a forum for emotions and for communications about services, events and news surrounding the tragedy. Those seeking support were able to seek it from a large amount of people and the research discovered that social media was very beneficial during this particular crisis. This is a prime example of this kind of larger scaled grieving and can be related to many other similar situations and an accurate portrayal of the reasoning behind partaking in it (Wandel, 2009).

Lastly, a large the people express grief on social media is simply for the public nature of it. As previously discussed the motivations can be in the name of the deceased, but they are mostly for the benefit of the living. This is done both directly and indirectly. People move on through the sharing and recognition of their pain with others. Barnhill and Owen conducted a study in 2007 in which they investigated the use of a website called Virtual Memorials that hosted web pages created by family members for social and public displays of grief. They found that the overall use of the website helped people to share narratives and experiences about the person that passed away and therefore aided in the grief process. The expression of empathy is another way that people use social media to communicate grief with one another. When an online user loses their life, particularly in a tragic accident, those who are less attached to the deceased will write to them for the family. They display a public sense of sympathy and empathy in a manner that can be endorsed by other members of the online community. Those who are not as close to the family or the person may still post and do so in the third person, usually stating in the comment that they do not know the person as well (Marwick & Ellison, 2012).

"Memorial pages and postings on Facebook are private statements or remembrances in a public venue, clearly intended to be seen by others" (Kern, Forman, Gil-Egui, 2012, p.9). It is clear that though the messages on Facebook walls may be very emotional and personal, they are knowingly posted there for those who are still living to see. According to (Marwick, Ellison, 2012, p.19), there is an "inability to distinguish strangers from loved ones, enabled by the publicness of Facebook memorial pages." Research has discovered that frequently people will post on the wall of the deceased with messages that are more personal than their actual relationship with the deceased would warrant. The main motivation of these particular users is to create a post about this person in an attempt to cause others to either show them sympathy or think more highly of them (Marwick, Ellison, 2012) .

There are a number of different motivations behind the use of social media Internet websites to grieve. This data that can be classified under three clear themes that formulate the bulk of the motives for this behavior. The first concept is the fact that social media is used as a way to communicate with the deceased and maintain a relationship with a person that is no longer bale to take part in that relationship. The second reason for grieving online is that social media eliminates geographical boundaries and has the ability to unite large masses of people to grieve together as an online community. Thirdly, family members and friends use social media to communicate with one another and express sympathy. And lastly, the overall motivation for grieving on social media is to create an audience for grieving in a number of different facets. This isn't a topic we really think much about, but it is immensely present. The first step to understanding how to move on after experiencing tragedy is trying to under why we respond the way we do when grieving. The process of grieving will never be easily defined or controlled, but it can be something we can work to understand. This way we can help each other in our times of need.