How is the online world changing the face of how people grieve?

By Melinda Phillips

Online experiences are now considered a normal part of life, and the distinctions that once existed between online and offline social networks are dissolving. As the online world evolves, it impacts on the range of human experience, including death and mourning.

The online world allows for public expressions of grief – in response to the loss of those known personally, and for people one has never met. Discussions about death, dying and grief also occur in many online spaces. Grief is becoming more public as people share about death, loss and grief in more visible and accessible ways than before and the expression of grief online is become more accepted as normal grieving behaviour.

The online experience of grief

Historically pre-modern societies tended to produce a bereaved community, while modern societies tend to produce bereaved individuals. Post-modern grieving in the online space is seen to produce both grieving communities after the loss of a particular person, and also communities of the bereaved, such as, those who have lost an infant, or a loved one to suicide. Communities online are often supported by social networking sites, such as Facebook and Instagram, and also sites established specifically for the purpose. Communities of bereaved people may share a common loss, and, similar to other online communities may be found on bereavement specific websites, and also on other general social media sites, most particularly Facebook.  Another type of community, a grieving community after the death of a specific person may also be found online, again sometimes on commercial and charitable websites built for the purpose of memorialising the dead.

How the bereaved interact with the online world

It has been observed that young people are more likely to grieve more openly and publicly, show their feelings and vulnerability. In part, this is because the social media experience has been an intrinsic part of their developmental processes in a range of areas including the construction of their identity and social connections - they have been sharing everything online and their grief is no different.  This can also be seen in their use of social networking sites in the very early hours and days after a death – they are used to communicating quickly (almost instantly) and often, which they do in this context too.

There are many different ways people participate in online spaces around the topics of dying, death and grief. These include the shared journeys of the dying and those supporting them; news, opinion pieces and personal responses both about death generally and about a specific death; and services that exist to maintain one’s presence online after death, amongst others. Online spaces including social networking sites provide many opportunities for the bereaved to commemorate and memorialise people who have died.

Commemoration and memorialising

Theories that enable some understanding into what is occurring online in this space include the concept of continuing bonds, which allow for relationships between the bereaved and those who have died to continue and evolve, rather than ending or being closed . Online memorialising certainly allows this process and can even be seen to scaffold it - while the physical bond is gone, a virtual presence remains. Another idea is offered by Niemeyer, describing how people undertake griefwork to make sense of their loss as part of the work of reconstructing their identity. Yet another idea is that the construction of a durable biography of the dead person, created through social contact and conversations can help with the integration of the loved one into the lives of the bereaved. Sites such as Facebook offer an ideal platform for this, with people sharing and adding to the biography most often started as an autobiography (of sorts) by the deceased themselves.  

Facebook is the most used social media site in the Western World, and in some studies by far the most commonly used platform in the online grief-space. The bereaved may choose to build on the deceased person’s existing profile, and at other times they may choose to create a new profile.   People are inspired to do this from many places – their own personal experience, suggested by police or friends.

Accessing support and learning about the grief experience

Walter proposed (using Martin and Doka’s descriptions of mourners) that instrumental grievers may seek information while intuitives may look for support. This frame of reference may be useful in starting to understand how mourners utilise online resources.

Online grief support is available in a range of contexts, and includes reading material about other people’s experiences of grief on specific websites (e.g. Modern Loss), in open letters by public figures (e.g. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook), in tweets and also in series’ published on online media mastheads, (e.g. the Huffington Post’s Common Grief series). Many people also share opinions on grief on all social networking sites, on blogs and websites and these can include text, pictures, comics, videos and other media. Research articles on grief and bereavement can also be accessed online.

In addition to passively browsing and reading, mourners can also actively participate in online independent grief support communities, either in broad communities (e.g. on message boards and in chat rooms, both moderated and unmoderated, in asynchronous or synchronous contexts) and in grief support groups (both facilitated and general).

People participate in online grief support communities for a range of reasons, including limited personal support systems and preferences for privately accessing support or participating at a time that best suits them. Some mourners may feel they can’t express their feelings in face-to-face interactions; for others, their loss may not be acknowledged as significant or at all, and still other mourners have felt they are gaining important insights online which helped in their grieving. Learning online can also be a sound method of accessing grief support. There is so much to be learned in the arena of personal and social evolution that is the internet, not least around the changing face of human experiences of mourning and grief.

This is an abridged version of an article that will appear in the April 2017 edition of the Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement, Grief Matters Journal.