Virtual grief democratizes mourning

Social media allows a “democratization of grief” for everyone to speak about their experiences with the deceased, in comparison to a traditional funeral setting in which only family members are the primary storytellers. Claire Boston | Multimedia Journalist 

Gravestones used to be the central place to mourn the deceased. In this virtual age, social media pages have become a new “burial site” of sorts, according to Dr. Candi Cann., a BIC and religion department professor. Cann published a book about memorialization of the dead in the contemporary world in 2014, based on her death research.

“People tend to talk to the dead on social media as though they were still present,” Cann said. “That actually occurred before; people would go to the gravestone and talk to the dead there.”

Cann said the main difference between mourning online versus in cemeteries is the presence of an audience.

“One of the great things about social media is it gives you a place to mourn and to express your grief in a way that you can come together in a virtual community that allows you to actually express your grief while you continue your daily life,” Cann said. “You still go to work and to school, but now you have a place where you can express your grief.”

Social media provides a virtual platform, which is helpful for people lacking a physical place to mourn. Cann said social media posting can help people feel validated and claim “their status as a mourner.”

There are no federal requirements for bereavement leave. According to Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), any workplace provisions are granted and defined by individual companies.

Baylor Human Resources Bereavement Leave provides paid time off for staff who have lost immediate family members. The amount of time allotted depends on the relationship. Baylor’s Absence Policy allows students to make up missed classwork “in the event of serious illness, accident, or death in the family.”

In the case of a staff or student death, University Chaplain and Dean of Spiritual Life and Missions Burt Burleson is notified in order to communicate the news to all those who need to be informed. Burleson said the Spiritual Life office will look at organizations, roommates, people from their department and other social circles to determine who to inform.

Burleson said Ronda Kruse, assistant to the university chaplain, searches Facebook to gather more information about the deceased.

“Almost immediately now, you’re going to see students expressing their grief and their gratitude for this person,” Burleson said. “Pretty quickly you can get a picture of a person’s life by the things that are being posted.”

Cann said social media allows a “democratization of grief” for everyone to speak about their experiences with the deceased, in comparison to a traditional funeral setting in which only family members are the primary storytellers.

“Social media has disrupted traditional notions of hierarchy,” Cann said. “It gives everyone a voice and everyone a platform.”

Burleson described social media as a collaborative eulogy. The medium allows grievers to minister to one another in a new, more intimate way, according to Burleson. He said people attended funerals and sent cards, but storytelling typically only occurred between closest friends and family before social media. Posts provide a medium for people to share their unique experiences with the deceased.

“To me, it’s about a person beginning to experience again the narrative of someone’s life — for a parent or a loved one, to begin to know how much they mattered in the world and the ways in which they mattered in the world,” Burleson said.

Cann said the danger of exclusively mourning online is a dissonance from physical reality.

“I think part of acknowledging death is sitting in the presence of the deceased and really acknowledging their absence,” Cann said. “The material world incorporates their absence. The virtual world does not always do that. That’s the problem.”

Cann said young people are most comfortable expressing their grief online, because they associate more closely with their social media page than a gravesite.

“I think younger people are more comfortable using social media to mourn death, because they’ve grown up with this technology,” Cann said. “For someone who was an adult when the internet was created, they tend to find it very strange and see it as an interruption of their daily life.”

Cann said traditional forms of memorialization allowed people to “silo themselves from death.” Posts expressing grief appear on social media feeds without prior warning or consent.

“That was surprising for a lot of adults, because that disrupted the hierarchy and the way they traditionally grieved,” Cann said.

The West has a culture of death denial, according to Cann. The Gerontologist, an Oxford academic research publication, wrote that dying in 21st century America, “which once was viewed as natural and expected,” is now viewed as “unwelcome” because of advances in medical care.

“Continued improvements in medical technology fuel the temptation to ignore its limits and elude the distress of facing these limits,” according to The Gerontologist. “The possibility for technological rescue from death supports denial and creates a defiant attitude about death and dying.”

Cann said incorporating mourning and grief into our everyday lives helps society to acknowledge death.

“Everybody dies, but I think we don’t prepare people for that,” Cann said. “I like to say the dead refuse to be ignored. They will find a place in our lives, whether we want them to or not.”