Grieving in the Age of Social Media

Black and gold awareness ribbons and #Marenstrong spread across social media sites just hours after sixteen-year-old Maren Sanchez was stabbed to death in a hallway at Johnathan Law High school in Milford, Connecticut. “Grl fatally stabbd possibly 4 rejectin boy 4 prom.” That’s how I learned about it—not through a TV broadcast, the radio, or the newspaper, but from a flurry of tweets on Twitter. Facebook and Tumblr, too, were buzzing about Maren and the events surrounding her death. As the day went on, I noticed that these social media posts came not only from friends who knew Maren and local community members, but from people with no obvious ties to her, and from places across the United States. There were expressions of shock and sorrow alongside exclamations of fear and angry rants about bullying and violence in schools. This public outpouring of emotion immediately after a horrible tragedy made me uncomfortable. It felt too soon to me. Didn’t the family deserve at least a few hours to absorb what had happened to them without public commentary? What right did we have to intrude on this personal tragedy? I began to wonder what effect social media is having on the grieving process.

Today, public expressions of grief through social media appear rapidly after a tragedy. It happened on an international scale just 18 months ago, when 20 children and 6 adults were killed in a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT. Five months before that there was a similar outpouring after the Aurora, CO shooting at a movie theater. News of a death or a tragic event used to travel by word of mouth or through the newspaper or radio. There was a delay, based on the limitations of the delivery methods, between when an event occurred and when the general public learned about it. Television sped up that timeline considerably and widened the audience. The internet picked up where TV left off, virtually eliminating any delay, and turning the audience into a global one. Today, with the help of social media, people all over the world are aware of important or sensational events almost instantaneously.

Rapid reports of a tragedy to a wide audience means that those offering support can be in place quickly. That can be a good thing. When Maren died, grief counselors, therapy dogs, and their owners, and local businesses quickly donated goods and time to help those who were affected. They were on-site at the school within hours to comfort students and other community members. Students were able to organize a candlelight vigil for the same day, as well as shows of support for in the following days, like asking everyone to wear purple, Maren’s favorite color. That same rapid news cycle, however, means that the victim’s family has almost no time to absorb what’s happened, let alone begin to grieve, before the public intrudes.

When a teenage cousin of mine died of a heart condition many years ago, I learned about it from my mother. She told me in a quiet setting and we were able to have a private moment to reflect on my cousin’s life. My aunt and uncle took a day to come to terms with their loss before notifying friends and school authorities. My cousin’s school had time to prepare a message for their students informing them of the dates and times of memorial and funeral services. Maren’s family had no time to prepare privately or to choose how others would learn of her death. Posters on social media, some close to the family and many who were not, determined the message and set the tone for how the world would learn of Maren’s passing.

Here’s something else that bothered me: some social media users took Maren’s death as an opportunity to make statements about violence in school, bullying, and the availability of help for students in trouble. While all of those issues were relevant, their timing made them seem inappropriate to me, and exploitative, especially when expressed in such a public forum so soon after the event.

When tragedy strikes, it is human nature to have a strong response, to want to reach out and provide comfort, or to express sorrow, anger, and outrage, or to gather information and try to understand why things happened the way they did. Social media is a platform that allows us to do all of these things. It gives people the opportunity to show compassion and support who might otherwise be too removed from the event. It can facilitate healing as grieving individuals connect and share their sorrow. With the good, however, comes the less palatable exploitation of tragedy and the almost immediate public intrusion into what use to be a more private realm. This makes for an uncomfortable combination.

Do the benefits of social media grieving outweigh the bad? It’s hard to say. I hope the response of the social media community has brought more comfort to Maren’s family and others than distress. I hope all those who are grieving find the solace and support they need, and perhaps social media will be the means of providing some of it.

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