If you spend time on social media, chances are you’ve seen one of your friends post about someone they’ve lost. From deceased loved ones to honoring fallen members of the community, social media is becoming one of the most public ways of grieving the loss of a loved one.
Facebook is known for keeping its users’ profiles active after they pass away, helping their loved ones commemorate them for years to come. A recent survey also shows that most people believe it’s important to keep these profiles active, so they can still view their pages, post, and comment long after they’ve died.
We’re also seeing a new trend on social media, tagging life-size cardboard cutouts of lost loved ones in photos as a way of remembering them after they’ve died. NPR recently spoke with photographer Tyrone Turner about returning home to New Orleans nearly ten years after Hurricane Katrina, only to see dozens of black families mourning the loss of their loved ones with cutouts or “lifesizes” as some people refer to them, usually of young black men that lost their lives to gun violence.
Friends and family will often pose with these cutouts in photos, tagging their fallen loved ones on social media. Others will bring them out for special occasions, like birthdays, graduations, and other community get-togethers, giving everyone a chance to reflect on those they’ve lost. As odd or upsetting as they might seem, these cutouts can be a source of great healing for these communities.
This new tradition of honoring those we’ve lost on social media is changing the way we grieve. Studies show grief is common among young people. 1 in 5 children will lose someone close to them by the age of 18 and around 90% of high schoolers report experiencing the death of a loved one.
But there’s a difference between mourning and grief. Mourning is a public or outward expression of loss, while grief refers to the private, internal processing of these emotions.
Social media is inherently social and public where everyone can see the things we post, comments, likes, etc. There is little room on social media for the private or internal. Many young people processing the loss of a loved one may choose to share this loss publicly on social media as opposed to dealing with it privately. In fact, posting about a lost loved one on social media may actually replace the person’s idea of who their loved one was in the community, especially if the person posting is too young to remember the deceased when they were still alive.
Teens using social media also report increased feelings of anxiety, depression, and sleep deprivation. These aren’t the kinds of emotions we typically want to attract when trying to process the loss of a loved one. Going through old photos and finding memories to share on Facebook and Instagram can be a painful experience for those grieving a loss.
If you’ve recently lost a loved one or know someone that has, you can try to change the narrative around how we grieve by doing more than just “liking” and posting on social media.
Even though a photo of a lost loved one receives hundreds of “likes”, don’t assume the person is okay. Reach out to them and try to arrange an in-person meeting to see how their feeling. Make sure they are still taking care of themselves by eating a balanced diet, staying active, and showing up for work.
The anniversary of a person’s death can exacerbate feelings of depression and despair. If you’re posting about someone you’ve lost, look for ways to connect with the people that knew this person best instead of sharing your feelings with friends that didn’t know this person at all. Don’t be afraid to DM or direct message a loved one instead of waiting for someone to send you a message first.
While there’s no right way to grieve, most people go through the same series of emotions:
These stages help us process our emotions during this difficult time. Look past what’s happening on social media and find ways to deal with your emotions privately. Reach to those around you for strength and support instead of just posting a photo of your loved one and counting the “likes”.