Grief and Social Networking

Grief and Loss Class Weekly Reflection Paper


by David Tillman – December 12, 2013
United Theological Seminary, New Brighton, MN 55112
Class: Pastoral Care in Grief and Loss, taught by Dr. Trina Armstrong

Social networking has changed the way we mourn which raises a host of strange new questions, by John Moore, The Denver Post Posted, September 21, 2013

Posting Grief on the Wall – Using Facebook to Grieve and Offer Support After a Tragedy, by Laura Levitt, Elon University, Spring 2012

Facebooking: A New Opportunity in Pastoral Care, by Dave C. Bocock, July 25, 2011, Oates Institute Pastoral Care in a Digital Age, by Sally Coleman, Ministry Matters, February 2, 2011

Key issues:

  1. Social networking has changed the way we mourn which raises a host of strange new questions, by John Moore.
    1. “Phil Gottlieb often gets Facebook invitations to parties and barbecues.
    2. A woman recently came across a photo of Jeffrey Nickelson on his Facebook page — and hit on him.
    3. The thing is, both men have been dead for about two years.” (1)
  2. Facebook claims 500 million active users, scores of whom die every day. And the social networking phenomenon has fundamentally changed the way we mourn as individuals, families and communities. Facebook postings have largely replaced marathon phone-call notifications and gravesite visits, not to mention taken a chunk out of sales of sympathy cards — by some industry estimates, as much as 30 percent. A deceased person’s Facebook page becomes a virtual condolence book, a public, communal mourning place that gives everyone processing a shared loss a place to gather and grieve together. But Facebook’s infiltration into every aspect of our lives has been so quick and widespread, there are no rules yet for how to properly use it at life’s most difficult moments.” (1)
  3. “When a person dies, is it appropriate for a family to announce the news on Facebook? Should one react by leaving a private or public message? Do we have an obligation to eventually “unfriend” a dead person, or might that be taken as an offense to survivors? Does the family of a deceased person have an obligation to take the person’s page down — or is it OK to leave it there forever? Is it weird to “friend” a person you know to be dead but whose page lives on?” (1)
  4. There’s been a death: Facebook dos and don’ts (3-4)
    1. “It is appropriate to express your sorrow on a deceased person’s Facebook page, but that’s no replacement for offering loved ones a card, phone call or old-fashioned hug.
    2. It is more appropriate to write a private note to a survivor than a public posting, but either is acceptable.
    3. Be mindful of the effect your words and photos might have on friends, family and even strangers.
    4. It is appropriate to “unfriend” a deceased person, but most people prefer to keep the contact intact.
    5. When sending invitations to your entire friend list, uncheck those who have died.
    6. Family members can remove a loved one’s page permanently or have it converted to a “memorial page,” so that friends can see the profile and leave posts in perpetuity. The experts’ advice: Leave it up for as long as you want.” (3-4)
  1. Posting Grief on the Wall – Using Facebook to Grieve and Offer Support After a Tragedy, by Laura Levitt
    1. “Abstract: This research explores how people use Facebook as an emotional outlet after a tragedy. Facebook has become a form of communication in the digital age; it is used to send messages, share photos and as a public forum. Facebook can be used as a gathering place for grievers following a death and can be used to send messages of support after an accident. Through the use of auto-ethnography, content analysis and interviews, this research examines the trends behind and the benefits of logging in to grieve and find support.” (1)
    2. “In a time of tragedy, people search for ways to reach out for catharsis, information, and solace. Social media site Facebook has added a new platform that is changing how people seek support and grieve after an accident or death. In the case of an accident, people use Facebook to receive updates about the victim’s condition, stay in touch with the family, and send supportive messages to the victim. This new platform allows the family to give updates about the condition to thousands of people at once. The victim can also receive supportive messages from friends and strangers.” (1)
    3. “This forum also gives users a place to mourn and memorialize a deceased friend. People set up groups where friends and strangers can share memories and photos about a deceased friend. People also use the deceased friend’s Facebook as a platform for mourning. There is a connection with the lost friend. Facebook also provides a community for mourning. People can share stories about their mutual friend and offer support.” (1)
    4. “Because this study looks at the grieving process as told through social media, it is necessary to understand how social media creates connections between users… The way people communicate and interact is changing because of social media… The way people communicate and interact is changing because of social media.” (2)
    5. “It is not possible to change grief because there is no specific formula for grief and everyone handles their own grief differently. However, it is possible that “how people share grief” has changed (Dickinson, 2011).” (3)
    6. “The media coverage of tragic events has encouraged people to be more open with their grief. This has led to people sharing their grief with one another and expressing their grief in very public ways. Furthermore, social structure also affects how people grieve because of the “important function, both for the individual and the group, of funeral rites, mourning customs, and general social structural features in moderating and managing the course of grief” (Fowlkes, 1990).” (3)
    7. “Facebook gives people an outlet for grief, which is especially helpful when people have trouble expressing their grief in public. Facebook also allows people to choose how they grieve. They can write what they want and chose where to write it. They can post a photo, change their profile picture or post a song that expresses how they feel. Facebook facilitates a new kind of grieving that is very public and yet more personal.” (4)
    8. Conclusion  (8)
      1. “Social media has changed how people communicate with one another and how people mourn and grieve. Grieving was once looked at as a very rigid process that was kept private, but grieving has become a public matter fairly recently. As the Internet became common and pervasive, grieving moved online. Online grieving provides a personal connection to the victim. In my situation, Facebook offered a platform where people could support me, my family and each other through the healing process.
      2. This study adds to the current field of research because it gives a look at using Facebook for grieving and support from the perspective of the victim. Furthermore, previous studies look at how people use Facebook for grieving and this study looks at how Facebook can be used as a means for communal support. This research is important because the Internet is changing how people are grieving.
      3. There are negative ramifications of turning to Facebook to find companionship in times of loneliness. This study is primarily about using Facebook for support rather than grief, which means it doesn’t address the ramifications of going online for grieving. Future research should examine if turning to social media helps or hurts the grieving individual, both in terms of the immediate grieving process and the long-term mental health.
      4. Secondly, there are many more social networking sites such as Twitter and Tumblr that are extremely popular and yet offer different ways of interacting with other users. There needs to be research about how people use those social networking sites and how the sites are being used as a platform for grieving to fully understand how people grieve online.
      5. Facebook has become a form of communication for many and a major part of the societal structure. As a part of the social structure, Facebook has also become a natural place to reach out for grief and support during times of tragedy and celebration.” (8)
  1. Facebooking: A New Opportunity in Pastoral Care, by Dave C. Bocock
    1. “Facebook is a great resource, at least from my perspective, and a wonderful opportunity to let both my church members know I care about them as well as inviting them into my own life and psyche. More than a few members have commented that they know me much better as they read my posts (and I post often) and learn what I value and what I do not value.” (2)
    2. “But there is also a danger with oversharing. I realize the tricky road I travel on Facebook. More than a few pastoral colleagues have been burned by the wayward posts they have made. I know of pastors who have lost their jobs because of something they wrote on their Facebook pages. Given their experiences and my own (for several years I wrote a couple of blogs), I am confident that I have discerned the appropriate boundaries that I need to stay within. For example, I never post anything relating to sex (even when it’s really funny) or private conversations between church members. I avoid making harsh judgments about anything relating to politics (please note the adjective ‘harsh’). And I don’t gossip on Facebook. Ever.” (2)
    3. “Navigating boundaries within Facebook does not just include how much information or opinions I share about myself, it also includes figuring out how to interact and engage my church members, especially those who want a deeper connection and which ones do not. At present, I am taking such considerations on a case-by-case basis in the same way that I determine which church members who want me to call on them and which ones do not.” (2)
    4. Overall Lesson with Facebook (3)
    5. “While Facebook is a great tool to managing congregational communication, it has the capability to be an outstanding outreach tool if developed and maintained as such. While there will always be those who cannot grasp or who do not care to grasp its potential, for the vast majority of persons, it can be a benefit whether the church is large or small, gray or youthful, and rich or poor.
    6. Smaller churches can use it as an inexpensive way to share information or to stay in touch with its members, who all seem to be online all the time. Larger churches can use it to create outreach programs and interact and engage its audiences in a new and exciting way. What both churches can do is find a way to use this new medium as a way to draw its participants into its own brick and mortar campuses.
    7. However one uses Facebook, there will always be a particular challenge. This challenge is how to engage with Facebook in a way that honors personal relationships. In an era of instant-everything (from instant messages to cell phone texts to impersonal emails to information overload), social networking sites can either intensify a feeling of alienation and impersonal communication or satisfy one’s feelings of connectedness. The keys to successful pastoral engagement are to know where to communicate what and what to communicate to whom.” (3)
  1. Pastoral Care in a Digital Age
    1. “I am a Methodist minister in my late 40s, working a rural circuit in North Yorkshire, UK, where the average age of a typical congregation is about sixty-five.” (1)
    2. “Occasionally a Facebook status is a cry for help. Anything from a complaint about a minor illness to a deep and heartfelt request for prayer can alert a minister to a related item.” (1)
    3. “Digital media offers us new tools for encounters that would not have been possible before, but in many ways, the care is just the same. Pastors are still caregivers, and must handle those encounters responsibly. The open and fluid nature of the digital media allows for relatively anonymous one-time encounters which may or may not deepen into long-lasting pastoral relationships, but then surely many other pastoral encounters are of a similar nature. When you see the whole world as your parish, it does not matter if a person is in “your” congregation or not; a person in need is a person in need, online or off.” (3)
    4. “What may be missing is a whole church relationship. Though the growing number of Internet churches may be the answer for some, I suspect that this is a void that can only really be filled in a face-to-face way. The opportunities for people to reach out digitally to invite people into face-to-face relationship should not be discounted as we meet needs in the virtual world.” (3)

Questions for class discussion: Do others in the class provide pastoral care over Facebook, and other social media connections? If so what has worked best for you? What are things to be aware of?

How has the reading affected your understanding of grief and loss?  I see in this reading, and also my personal experiences, that Facebook and other social media allows people to express their grief in a more public way. One of my friends and our classmate, Rich K., died unexpectedly earlier this year. When I first heard about this, within ten minutes I went to his Facebook page. He also had set up an automatic daily tweet that continued after his death. I have not gone back to his Facebook page for many months. I will go back to his Facebook page (if it still exists) as it gets closer to the one year remembrance of his death. This will be a way for me to reconnect with my memories of Rich and pay my respects.

How will you apply what you have learned in your ministry setting? I use Facebook, email and other social media to keep up with what is happening in the lives of my family, friends, classmates and groups. I do not post very much on Facebook, nor respond to other peoples posts. I will pick up the telephone and call someone if I learn about something in their life that would be good to talk about. As a parish minister, I can see using Facebook and other social media as a way to get another look at what is going on in the lives of members that are on-line. From what I learn reading a post, I might make a pastoral care telephone call to a person to check in with them. I do not feel comfortable, nor think it is a good idea, to provide pastoral care over the internet. It is too public. As a friend, I see a response to a family/friend’s posting along the lines of “I am thinking of you…” as appropriate. As a minister or chaplain, I would provide pastoral care face-to-face or in a telephone conversation with the person and not post on Facebook.  

© 2013, David Tillman, all rights reserved