George Matheson was a 19th Century pastor and hymn writer. Blind from his youth and having faced grief, loss, and disappointments of many kinds, he was a man who was familiar with the challenges of suffering. He wrote:
Many of us would tearlessly deal with our grief if only we were allowed to do it in private, yet what is so difficult is that most of us are called to exercise patience, not in a bed, but in the open street for all to see. We are called upon to bury our sorrows not in restful inactivity but in active service; in our workplace, while shopping and doing social events… No other way of bearing sorrow is as difficult as this, for it is truly what is meant by running with patience.
Matheson is highlighting the challenge of navigating public and private grief. If it was difficult enough for him in the 19th century, how much more challenging is it for us in the digital age? We don’t just handle grief in the open street for all to see, but on the information-super-highway! In particular, social media has provided a new and complex platform for those of us who are grieving to navigate. As Matheson implies, those of us who have been through deep grief often want to curl up into a ball and hide away. However, psychologists tell us that grieving people require social proximity to help facilitate healing. Social media is clearly one opportunity for us to connect with other people as we seek to process grief and loss. But how do we do this in a healthy way given some of the constraints and challenges of this relatively new communication tool?
For many of us, social media became exponentially more important during the global COVID-19 pandemic. We have become increasingly connected to our devices and it has simply become part of our daily life. However, many of us are also concerned that there is an intrinsic link between social media usage and the state of our mental health. If this is true (as many studies are indicating), then we need to be even more cautious about how we utilise social media while we are processing grief.
The challenge is that social media is not just a vehicle for us to share about what we’re going through, but it also exposes us to the pain of others, which can compound our own grief. As one researcher has written, Death is becoming a much more public experience… due in part to the introduction of technology (Resa Ware). The long-term reality is that, whereas, in pre-social media, we tended to lose touch with people as our social circles changed, we now have an increasingly long list of online ‘friends’. It is, therefore, simply the mathematics of probability which means we are going to be exposed to more loss and sadness, alongside the frivolity, triviality, and downright ridiculousness of social media.
The breaking of tragic news via social media seems to now be part of everyday life. I first became aware of how social media would change our interaction with grief in 2011. My good friend, Mark Versey, tragically died aged just 38. He had worked with me in Pretoria for three years and had recently moved to London and taken up a new position within our organisation. I heard the news of his passing via telephone from my dad. Later that afternoon I realised I needed to phone some people with the news. As I was calling some people, I became aware that word of Mark’s passing was spreading very quickly. So, I logged on to my Facebook account and saw that my feed was filling up with messages that tagged Mark. Tribute after tribute was being posted. I felt a bit stunned as I witnessed this global expression of grief. It was an amazing testimony to the impact that Mark’s life had had. And it was also an incredible comfort to be able to relate to a global community of people through the shrinking world brought about by social media.
That was 2011 and it was the first time I became aware of how this could be a powerful medium to help people through their grief. However, an equal and opposite danger has emerged: tragedy can become commonplace resulting in us being desensitised to our newsfeeds. In the same browsing session, we can see acquaintances or far-flung friends celebrating an engagement or the birth of a baby, while others are announcing that they have cancer or have lost a job. At any point of any day, our lives can be interrupted with uninvited heart-breaking news as friends and loved ones, or even long-lost acquaintances, experience and share their personal trials and grief.
The fact is that social media is here to stay and it is a vehicle of communication that people going through grief need to navigate. And there is no playbook on how best to do that. Some people lay their hearts bare for all to read through highly personal and emotive posts. Others withdraw completely. When I lost my wife in 2016, I took a different approach. I determined to try and use the platform sensitively and sparingly. Reading other people’s tributes to Laura and messages of love that came through various online platforms was certainly a comfort. It was also a great vehicle through which to mobilise prayer and support for our family. However, there were many private and personal things that I didn’t feel were appropriate for the world-wide-web to be aware of at that time. So, although I browsed regularly, I posted sparingly.
Now, in 2023, the world is more connected than ever. Pre-Covid, the average American was checking their smartphone up to 150 times a day. During 2020, we became hooked on tracking the spread of the disease and how each country has adopted different strategies to counteract it. Since covid, it seems that we are increasingly aware of tragedies that sweep our world, be it raging fires in Canada, loss of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea, war in the Ukraine or dams bursting in Libya. We are exposed to the tragic devastation that this is causing, which fuels our fears and compounds our concerns about the future. We are more aware of people’s grief but can feel powerless in our interventions. This can also be exhausting!
Therefore, in the midst of a tragic storm, I would advise caution in your engagement with social media. Develop a strategy to handle it. I believe the danger of over-immersion in social media is that it can exacerbate your sense of isolation. Your strategy needs to enable you to share appropriately about what you are going through with your broader social network, while also finding ways to connect more deeply and meaningfully with people you love and trust. We need meaningful relational connections in order to survive the worst that life can throw at us.
The critical principle is that you feel empowered to utilise social media in ways that helps you and doesn’t harm you or others. Additionally, although research is indicating that there are many positive advantages to processing grief online, don’t allow social media to become your only platform where you seek to process your grief. My experience on social media after losing my wife was largely positive but it was not all-encompassing. Connect with people directly. Seek professional help. Join an online or physical support. Some small groups have started working through the Grief and Grace book and video series, which now contains a reflection guide that can help spark conversation. Look to a diverse community of people to offer you support and help in the aftermath of losing a loved one.
I came to see the community of people around me as a gift that God had given me to help me through my journey of pain. Just as I don’t see my relationship with God as a crutch, but as a gift of grace, so I began to see people as gifts along the way. There were people, in my physical and online community, who journeyed with me through the valley of the shadow of death, and I learned a beautiful thing that I hope will be your experience. Although both online and physical relationships can be a sensitive and challenging reality to navigate while grieving, people became the source of God’s gracious gifts that helped me along the way. And this led to some breakthroughs at various stages; glimpses of light breaking through my smog. This brought relief, support and even some joy even in the midst of pain.