May 1, 2015

Grievebook: How Facebook has Changed the Way we Grieve & Heal.

girl laptop compute media facebook

Birthdays are big in my family.

So, I get excited for birthday reminders on Facebook. To exclaim “Happy Birthday!” and to know that for one day that person’s page is a sea of birthday love, an endless wall of birthday wishes, makes me happy. It is a glorious, giant, birthday card. It’s a beautiful thing.

It is also a sad thing.

Per my daily ritual, on and off throughout the day, I look to see what’s happening on Facebook. And scroll I do…half paying attention. Something is catching my eye:

“RIP Max!” 

“I can’t believe you’re gone.”

“Max! No!”

As my brain catches up to what my eyes are reading, my heart is rising to my throat. I begin to shake, saying aloud “No, no, no!!” I cannot be reading this. The love of my life is gone? I’m at work so this emotional wreck of a scene is quickly taken to the ladies room where I unravel.

A call is made to confirm that this horrible nightmare is real. Indeed, it is. How could it be on Facebook before I knew?! Well, because the news spread like wildfire on Facebook before calls could be made. And I realized that finding out about news via Facebook is no different than a relative of a famous person seeing the latest event about their famous relative on the news. The big news these days hits the appropriate internet outlet at record speed. So, what is normally a casual outlet of social and harmless media had become the dagger to my heart. I pull the dagger out and immediately head home. How the heck did I get home? I don’t remember.

Once home, the dagger is back in. I log back into Facebook and the messages on Max’s wall pour in. The mountain of grief, the ever bigger mountain of love, the gut-wrenching disbelief and pain, are all there. Post after post after post, communal grief, Facebook style.

In my own stew of pain, I climb those mountains and make my post.

“Max! Sweetheart, you take a bit of me with you. That piece that you claimed through your love and friendship. You loved, lived and played hard. You were a mover and a shaker, a romantic, creative soul, a dreamer and catcher of dreams.

Come visit me on winged flight

On a clear and starry night

Let us visit one last time hon

While I’m still here in earthly light”

In the midst of this heartache I get a message from one of Max’s friend. “How are you?” she asks. “He loved you so much,” she adds.

“He loved you too,” I write.

A softening of pain occurs. More emails come in and the communal sharing of grief continues.

When the time came for the actual wake, many of us who had never met were now familiar with each other through shared online, yet intimate grief. And in that familiarity, we embraced in ways that we might not have done if emotions had not been shared on Max’s Facebook page and through Facebook private messages. To receive a hug from someone you knew only through Facebook and to hear the words, “I knew of you and wanted to be sure to come over to you. I know he loved you so much,” was not only emotionally generous on their part, but incredibly healing and soothing.

I was approached many times in that manner and my heart was and is still filled with gratitude for those messages of love. And I bonded in those moments with those people in that singular familiarity that Facebook provided. Oh, how healing that is!

In a mortal twist, what had been a social page for Max had now become a memorial page. And on Max’s page we waked his passing before we did so in the physical. Intertwined with the grief and loss on his wall were stories, memories, love, gratitude, pictures, songs, quotes, but more importantly, much needed and healing support for one another.

In this communal online sharing we were comforted and not alone.

In this new grieving experience, I realized that Facebook has changed the way we grieve. It is where, more often than not, that we become aware of a passing first. It is where we first wake the departed, see the obituary and learn of funeral arrangements. For those retching moments of pain, where once we were alone with it, we now post some of those moments of grief. So candid are those words on so social a platform, yet met with such intimate replies of understanding, mutual grief and heart felt comfort.

At once we are soothed at knowing we are not alone in the loss. In turn, we offer replies of comfort, of knowing the pain. Those posts and replies are gifts given and received over and over again.

It is the ultimate sympathy card.

And for the more candid moments, when those emotions that are just too raw to share on a wall, when you have spoken, yelled or cried into the air and it’s still not enough? There’s Facebook private message. It is but another facet of the Facebook memorial. And yes, you message the departed. You pick up where you left off. For me, it’s that trip in October that will never happen. This time the message is angst filled with questions of why. A crying Snoopy looking up (at heaven). Or just, I love you. And while the messages will always just show as “sent” and never as “seen,” there is satisfaction in seeing these emotions in earthly message format. It is an earthly hope that Max has seen the message from Heaven as I typed.

Since Max’s passing it has been a steady flow of emotional wall posts, in the wee hours, all hours. Angst-filled posts of missing him, photos and random shout outs of beautiful memories. They are loving posts that are sent upward. Among the palpable pain there is beauty in the tribute.

And there is health.

What do we do to ourselves when we hold pain, grief and stress in? We have an increase of inflammation, immunity can drop, weight can fluctuate, and sleep patterns can be disturbed. Overall health can plummet. But what happens when we click on that Facebook page and start typing or just read the posts? We are releasing, bit by bit, pain, stress and grief. Stress levels drop. The body’s healing response begins. Even better is if that typing triggers crying. Crying is a vital release chemicals and hormones to help us return to a calm state.

And what of the effects of the social page turned memorial page to Max’s family? It provides incredible healing comfort, peace. It also brings joy to see every life he touched through all the posts to his wall and to learn more about him through the stories, the memories and love. The endless testaments of the wonderful person Max was.

So Max, you have leave an online legacy. That social page turned memorial.

It was recently Max’s birthday. There it was on the “Events” page. Such an earthly thing for so heavenly a soul. I make my post.

We were poetry and song.

Brown eyes into starburst blue

Gazing for hours long

Hearts on sleeve

Declarations made

Oh why did you leave?

A song to sing to you today

To the heavens above

Happy, Happy Birthday!

I miss you Love.


The Dark Side of Social Media During Times of Grief.

Author: Barbara Stoffel

Volunteer Editor: Kim Haas / Editor: Travis May

Photo: Alessandro Valli via Flickr

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Barbara Stoffel