Breaking the silence: social media’s impact on the way we grieve

Published: May. 8, 2013 at 12:02 PM EDT|Updated: May. 8, 2013 at 12:13 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) – After losing a loved one, it's not uncommon for social media users to express their grief on social media platforms. In light of that, counselors say the digital world is adding new dimensions to the grieving process.

Social media manager Jennifer Bailey Bergen says her first experience with death on social media was when her aunt passed away nearly three years ago. "People were going to her Facebook page and posting, 'I was thinking of you today' and 'I really miss you'," said Bergen.

It's that present tense expression of grief that Dr. April Hames, with Columbia Counseling Center, says has some researchers intrigued. "The messages are if the person was still there," said Dr. Hames. "The language is speaking to the person presently not in past tense, which is a really fascinating phenomenon for researchers."

Dr. Hames says gone are the days when people grieved together only by a graveside. "It's really reversed this previous silence, and if it is a word, 'unsharability' of pain and grief," said Hames. "There's no longer a silence after someone's death."

Hames provides grief counseling at Columbia Counseling Center. She believes social media has added a whole new dimension to processing the loss of a loved one. "I think social media can be commended for facilitating a much more open process of grief, in that individuals who maybe not would have given words to something they can now express it," added Hames.

Hames says psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross' widely known stages of grief include: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. But Hames adds there are also requirements for healthy grief, and she says social media now greatly contributes to the first three.

"The first is the acknowledgment of a loss, and I don't know how many times I've seen a status update or a tweet that says 'Our beloved has passed away,'" said Hames.

She says the second requirement is reaction to the loss. "That's where other individuals can get on and react and talk about that loss," she added.

The third requirement is recollections of the departed, which often you'll find no shortage of on social media. However, it's the fourth requirement- relinquishing attachments to the deceased- that Hames says may be harder with the digital world. "That's the difficult part for social media when you have to make the conscious decision to un-friend someone or make the choice to not look at their page anymore," she added.

Hames says it's not a must, but without some type of letting go, she adds it can be difficult to meet requirements five and six: readjusting to the world without your loved one, and reinvesting in new things.

"There could be a boundary of unhealthy for someone, and it would be on an individual basis where you could tell is someone is holding on and just not letting go," said Hames.

Hames says while grieving is different for everyone, it traditionally lasts six to eighteen months. She says while some aspects of social media may complicate grief, another positive is that if someone is having a hard time through the grieving process, the social media community can reach out to get that person help.

For users like Bergen, it's the community and the connection she finds most important to grieving online. "I think it's a really great way for a survivor to feel connected to the person that they miss, and for me, personally, I value that."