Expressing Sorrow in a New Era
In previous generations there were established conventions for offering condolences to the grieving as well as accepted ways of expressing grief. But we are living in a new era—the era of blogs, email, and social media. Most people these days—especially those of the younger generation—would much rather text than talk. We can barely remember the last time we wrote a letter by hand and had to actually find the person’s address and a stamp and put it in the mail. We live in an era of instant communication and public sharing of every event in our lives.
So it makes sense that we would also share our great sorrows online for all of the world to see. In fact, those who might never talk in person about their grief will sometimes write about it on a blog or Facebook page. They are more comfortable sharing it that way and perhaps more comfortable receiving expressions of caring that way too.
Please Stop and Take Notice!
I’ve tried to figure out what drives me to post something about my children when their birthdays or deathdays roll around, even though we are many years down this road of grief. Why do I feel the need to broadcast it? Perhaps it’s that I often feel a mass of pressure building up inside me, a load of sadness that needs an outlet. I feel the need for the world to know that my missing Hope and Gabe has not come to an end, and opening the front door to scream out in pain doesn’t quite seem appropriate. I long for a connection with other people willing to acknowledge and share in my sorrow in some small way, even if it is simply the click of a “like” button. When people take this small step of entering into—instead of ignoring—these significant days, by simply commenting or “liking” a social media post or picture, it soothes some of the hurt. The truth is, the kindness of it usually brings me to tears as I think about that person at their computer or with their phone in hand remembering Hope or Gabe with me. It provides a release valve for the internal pressure.
When people take this small step of entering into—instead of ignoring—these significant days, by simply commenting or “liking” a social media post or picture, it soothes some of the hurt.
When we’ve lost someone we love, we have a hard time understanding how the earth can keep spinning and people can keep doing the daily things of life since it seems that everything about our world has changed. We want the world to stop and take notice. That’s what a blog post written by a grieving person is meant to do. That’s what posting old photographs on the anniversary of someone’s death is meant to do. It’s a grieving person’s invitation to the world to stop, at least for a moment, to remember and to be sad with her. It is grief in search of companionship.
Using Facebook to Enter Another’s Sorrow
Miss Manners says, “To express sympathy, it is essential to demonstrate that you are thinking about the person with whom you sympathize. A computer interface—the purpose of which is to reduce the time spent to an absolute minimum—will not convey this message convincingly.”1 And I agree that certainly our expression of sympathy shouldn’t be limited to a text, an email, or a social media comment. But that is not to say that our electronic interaction with grieving people isn’t meaningful or helpful. In fact, when grieving people are active on social media, this kind of engagement is one of the most significant ways you can enter into their sorrow. Of course, posting a message expressing sorrow on the Facebook page of someone who only rarely interacts on Facebook or other social media is probably not meaningful, and they likely will not see it in a timely way. But to neglect or refuse to comment on a post by a friend who has poured out his or her sadness on Facebook is to see their great sorrow and look the other way.
And, really, if you are someone who feels awkward approaching grieving people to speak about their loss, social media is a gift. You don’t have to deal with initiating a conversation or figuring out how to end it. You don’t have to make a phone call and risk catching the grieving at a time when they’re not prepared to talk. You don’t have to be afraid of saying the wrong thing under the pressure of the moment. You can carefully craft your words. But, really, it doesn’t have to be anything laborious or long. You can leave a note on a Facebook page after the funeral that says, “I’m so grateful I got to be a part of celebrating your dad’s life today.” You can write about a brief memory of the deceased when something about their birthday or deathday is posted, something like, “Your mom always made the best chocolate chip cookies,” or “I miss hearing him laugh.” What moves me to tears and bonds me in unbreakable ways to people—some of whom are not necessarily close friends—is when they simply comment on a post about my children, “I remember.” Or even better, “I will never forget.”
One of the very best gifts you can give someone who is grieving is photos of the deceased. Whenever you discover a picture in your photo files that includes someone who has died, be sure you don’t keep it to yourself. Posting the picture on Facebook not only gives their family and friends the joy of the newly recovered memory; it also creates a shared experience as others enter into the memory through their comments.
People often say to those who are grieving, “Call me if you need anything.” That’s what a social media post is—a call to let you know what they need. And what they desperately need is to speak that person’s name by typing in the letters and seeing it on the page. They need to hear the dings and see the names appear of those who respond, assuring them they are not forgotten. They’re telling you that they need a way to release all the pressure that has built up inside. They’re “calling” you to tell you that the anything they need is for you to miss, along with them, the person who died so they won’t feel so alone. Your online acknowledgment, by pressing the “like” button, is the balm, the anything, they really need.
But What If . . . ?
Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that it is a little creepy to “like” a post about someone’s death. Let’s just agree that the button may be awkwardly named for this particular purpose. Fortunately the folks at Facebook have supplied us with a number of new options besides just the thumbsup sign. Now you can respond with a heart or a tear. However you acknowledge what has been posted by the person in pain, it will be a real encouragement.
Practical and down-to-earth, this short guide will equip you to come alongside a loved one who is hurting and offer comfort in ways that really help.
Maybe you think what they’ve shared is too private or precious to comment on. Maybe you think you are not close enough to the person posting to intrude. But the reason they posted it is that the pain of keeping it private has become too much to bear, and they want and need others to enter in. The very fact that you are not in their close circle of friends and yet chose to enter in makes your comment all the more meaningful. So enter in.
As I write to encourage you to persist in interacting online, I also think about what all of the blogs and posts about death and grief must be like for you. Perhaps you feel, at times, like so much is being constantly required of you in reading and commenting on every agonized post, admiring and entering into every photo memory, accepting or rejecting every invitation to participate in a memorializing or fundraising event. Surely it can begin to feel like a burden. Perhaps you’ve begun to wonder if someone’s grief is bordering on obsession, and if commenting or “liking” is just feeding the monster of a seemingly bottomless pit of need for attention and sympathy. Certainly it can be hard to know exactly how and how much to respond and interact online with people about their loss.
Here’s what you need to know: grieving people notice when you frequently comment or acknowledge any and every kind of other status but go silent when they post about their loved one and loss. Your silence sounds like disapproval—perhaps even disgust—and creates distance that is difficult to overcome. It feels to the hurting that you wish they would move on and stop talking about it.
Maybe your aversion to acknowledging their painful post is that you think they’ve posted enough about it. They seem obsessed with it or overly needy. Perhaps you are tempted to delete these status updates from your newsfeed because it seems their grief is all they ever post about these days, and, frankly, you’re tired of it and don’t want to encourage the trend with your clicks. Perhaps you think they’re simply fishing for sympathy or attention and are demanding more from you than you and the rest of the online world wants to give. That may be true. And maybe if you are a friend who has walked with them through the loss closely enough to earn a place to talk to them about it, you should have a conversation. But probably the best thing is to recognize the continual posting as an expression of intense pain and loneliness and to offer the comfort that only costs you a click, along with a prayer for healing.
A Final Encouragement
But here’s one more thing you have to know, even as I encourage electronic and online compassion and support: there is nothing like getting handwritten notes and cards in the mail. Nothing.
This article is adapted from What Grieving People Wish You Knew about What Really Helps (and What Really Hurts) by Nancy Guthrie.