Last Friday was a sad day. A very dear and lifelong friend of mine, my Uncle Al, passed away. And so I did what I’ve done before on these occasions. I expressed my feelings by writing about it. The post went live on my blog around 10:30 in the morning. By mid afternoon, it had been shared and posted through Facebook, Twitter and many other online channels. Many were kind enough to send comments. The family, in the midst of their grief, forwarded my post to their family and friends. Soon, there was an extended network of mourning that sought to heal each other, all through channels that didn’t exist just a few years ago. Mourning had moved online.
As you probably know, I’m fascinated by how we express our innate human needs through digital technologies. And death, together with birth, is the most universal of human experiences. It was inevitable that we would use online channels to grieve. So I, as I always do, asked the question – why?
First of all – why do we mourn? Well, we mourn because we are social animals. We are probably the most social of animals. So we grieve to an according degree. We miss the departed terribly. It is natural to try to fill the hole a death tears inside of us by reaching out to others who may share the same grief. James R. Averill believed we communally mourn because it cements the social bonds that make it more likely that we will survive as a species. When it comes to dealing with death, misery loves company.
Secondly, why do we grieve online? Well, here, I think it has something to do with Granovetter’s weak ties. Death is one of those life events where we reach beyond the strong ties that define our day-to-day social existence. Certainly we seek comfort from those closest to us, but the death also triggers the existence of a virtual community – defined and united by their grieving for the one who has passed away. Our digital networks allow us to eliminate the six degrees of separation in one fell swoop. We can share our grief almost instantaneously and simultaneously with family, friends, acquaintances and even people we have never met.
There are two other aspects of grief that I believe lend themselves well to online channels: the need to chronicle and the comfort of emotional distance.
Part of the healing process is sharing memories of the departed love one. And, for those like myself, just writing about our feelings helps overcome the pain. Online provides a perfect platform for chronicling. We can share our own thoughts and, in the expressing of them, start the healing process.
The comfort of physical distance seems a contradictory idea, but almost everyone I know who has gone through a deep loss has one common dread – dealing with a never-ending stream of condolences over the coming weeks and months, triggered by each new physical encounter.
When you’ve been in the middle of the storm, you are typically a few days ahead of everyone else in dealing with your grief. Your mind has been occupied with nothing else as you have sat vigil by the hospital bed. While the condolences are given with the best of intentions, you feel compelled to give a response. The problem is, each new expression of grief forces you to replay your loop of very painful memories. The amplitude of this pain increases when it’s a face-to-face encounter. Condolences that reach you through a more detached channel, such as online, can be dealt with at your discretion. You can wait until you marshall the emotional reserves necessary to respond. You can also respond to several people at a time. How many times have you heard this from a grieving loved one, “I just wish I could record my message and play it whenever I meet someone who wants to tell me how sorry they are for my loss?” It may seem callous, but no one wants to relive that pain over and over again. And let’s face it – almost no one knows the right things to say at a moment like this.
By the end of last Friday, my online social connections had helped me ease a very deep pain. I hope I was able to return the favor for others that were dealing with their own grief. There are many things about technology that I treat with suspicion, but in this case, turning online seemed like the most natural thing in the world.