TW: This article talks openly and frankly about the death of loved ones
Death doesn’t usually come up over an oat latte or a bottomless brunch. It doesn’t feel appropriate to ask your boss for a month off after a significant loss, despite the fact that your life has changed irreversibly. There’s an expectation that grief expires, that its grip on our heart relaxes and we can continue on with our lives once a certain amount of time has passed. But that’s simply not true.
Grief is still a taboo subject. It is discussed straight after the death happens when there’s a wave of support but, a few weeks later, it begins to dwindle as life (and supposedly grief) moves on. In the UK, there’s no standardised bereavement leave so the only option is returning to work, and 'normal' life, a few days or weeks later.
From then on, grief is swept under the carpet. It isn’t thrown into conversation over a coffee or slipped into a "How are you?" text from your friend. Those who are not going through it treat grief as if it is a burden; it weighs down a chat with an invisible black cloud that nobody knows how to deal with.
There is a community on TikTok where this is not the case. The #grief hashtag on TikTok has over 436 million views, with thousands of stories of bereavement offering a much-needed dose of reality to those suffering in silence. On GriefTok, there’s no sugar-coating the loss of loved ones, no aesthetic filters to soften the blow. No one here is biting their bottom lip so as not to cry. Instead, users openly and honestly share the truth of unpredictable, lifelong grief. It is a nonjudgmental space where no one has to explain how grief feels as everyone else who is grieving already understands.
According to Child Bereavement UK, one in 29 children between the age of 5 and 16 have been bereaved of a parent or a sibling — on average that’s one child in every class. In the UK alone, 111 children under the age of 18 lose a parent every day.
I was one of those children. I was 16 when I lost my dad to a brain tumour. Having to explain to every single person that your parent has died is emotionally exhausting, especially when they respond with that look. It was refreshing, then, to find TikTok user @hiitsmisspetch making light of this experience in a video, listing the things people have asked her about her parents before responding, emotionless: "They're dead."
It is the honesty of @cayleighs_car_chats who records herself singing along to "Killing Me Softly" before bursting into tears as she remembers singing the song with her brother and sister who passed away. It is the raw display of emotion from @kristen_barness who records a video through floods of tears, sharing how her sister used to do her makeup when she felt insecure. Now that her sister's gone, she struggles to do it herself. Videos from brave women like this remind us that even small, everyday tasks are filled with emotions and memories which make daily life so bittersweet after losing someone you loved.
Users on GriefTok often choose to capture a very specific moment in their grief journey for their videos, from revisiting a parent’s grave after 20 years to letting go of their possessions and the empty chair at the dining table. Each video is a snapshot of living with loss which beautifully encapsulates the sadness and the joy in remembrance.
Since bereavement isn’t discussed openly, we haven’t all developed the language to talk about grief. Out of fear of saying the wrong thing, friends stop mentioning the death at all. Yet according to a survey by Child Bereavement UK, 26% of adults who have lost a close family member wish their friends would mention by name the person who died, while a tenth of all adults say some of their friends actively avoided them after they lost a loved one. It’s never been more important for grievers to feel heard; the UK saw 70,000 excess deaths in the pandemic, bringing the total of bereaved individuals to an estimated 2.6 million in 2020 alone.
As anyone who has been bereaved will tell you, grief doesn’t have an expiration date. It’s not something you 'get over'; you can feel the loss as fervently as ever, decades after it happened.
As someone who is well acquainted with grief, I found the discussions about grief on TikTok heartbreakingly honest and relatable. When my dad died, I felt like a part of me died with him. He was 46, full of life and, until he was diagnosed, the healthiest person I knew. Death is always a shock, even if someone has a terminal illness. Nothing quite prepares you for their death nor anyone else to be able to support you.
I felt so alone in my grief, even though my family and I were going through the same loss. I had to sit my GCSE exam several hours after he died, go to school every day, get my A-levels. I was forced to return to everyday life as though nothing had changed and, while I tried, sometimes I couldn’t get out of bed. I shut down because I didn’t know how to express how I felt. I certainly didn’t know that I’d have to learn to live with my grief – that it doesn’t go away.
The pain is in the small moments too, as TikTokers Cayleigh and Kristen highlighted. I’d go out for dinner with my family and the waiter would remove the fourth place at the table. I’d listen to my friends tell me what they were getting their dad for Father’s Day or how they’d argued with him over a party. Death fundamentally makes people very uncomfortable. But as @hiitsmisspetch’s video and the thousands of comments beneath it point out, sometimes the reality of a situation needs to be said directly, in order to just get through it.
Initially I didn’t know how to talk about grief; I didn’t have the words as I hadn’t been taught them. GriefTok is a space for everyone to share the intimate and painful details of death in a very public, frank way. As a watcher, I don’t have to comment or engage if I don’t feel up to it. I can just listen to stories and feel less alone in my grief as I know the other users understand. Listening also helps you develop the language to talk about your own grief: sometimes people can describe how you’re feeling even when you can’t.
The GriefTok community is changing the dialogue around grief for the better by offering more than a condolence after a death. It’s about sustaining a lifelong and compassionate conversation about grief.
In the same way that you’ve probably tried the TikTok wrap hack or used the platform to learn a new dance, think of GriefTok as a reminder to check in with your grieving friends months and even years after the death; keep the dialogue honest and ongoing. Sadly, everyone will get to know the shorthand of grief eventually in their lifetime. Until that day, observe GriefTok, empathise and, most importantly, bring that dialogue into the real world.