When my grandfather passed away in 2009, I posted a status on MySpace that read, “rip grandfather <3”. Looking back, it seems cringey and performative — it’s not like he could see my status, and I wasn’t friends with anyone in my family on the platform (as a 13-year-old, I was too young to be on it anyway). But still, I felt compelled to publish that post. I wanted to not only feel like I was doing something tangible to recognize and acknowledge the death of someone I loved, but to invite others to grieve along with me, too.
We’ve come a long way since MySpace. Platforms like Facebook took off not long after top-eight lists ruled our lives. Instagram soon entered the picture along with Snapchat, LinkedIn, and most recently, TikTok, amplifying our reach and connections to others across the internet. And while social media is often seen as the highlight reel of our lives, there are instances in which people can get pretty deep and vulnerable with what they choose to share. As social media has evolved, so have our public displays of grief. From entire photo albums to heartfelt posts to carefully crafted video montages, our compulsion to share remains the same, but our feeds seem to play a role in shaping how we memorialize those we’ve lost.
Hayley Hendricks lost her father earlier this year. She posted the news to her Instagram and Facebook profiles, alerting her friends, family, and followers of his passing. As the months have gone on, Hendricks has continued to share photos and stories of her father whenever she feels low, or comes across something that makes her smile. “When my dad passed, I realized I had so many pictures and beautiful memories with him that I wanted to share,” Hendricks tells Refinery29. “It made me feel better posting pictures of us on vacation, videos of us dancing and laughing, and just showing people on social media how great our relationship was. I miss him all the time and when I share something on social media it makes me feel like I’m keeping his spirit alive.”
In many ways, Hendricks’ approach has become the norm. Plenty of people turn to social media while grieving to memorialize and remember what they loved about the person they lost, and to share the memories that they still hold onto. Far from being unusual, sharing in this way may actually be vital to the grieving process. “One of the things my favorite author and speaker, David Kessler, says is that grief needs to be witnessed to be healed,” says Liz Kelly, LCSW, therapist at Talkspace. “When we post on Instagram or Facebook about our loved ones who died, we’re allowing other people to be able to witness our grief.”
Kelly says this is why funerals and memorial services are so important; they help us process loss. But during the pandemic, not everyone was able to gather in this healing way. Hendricks’ father’s funeral, for instance, was a lot smaller than her family had anticipated because of COVID-19 precautions, something that she says “broke my heart.” “I wanted everyone to be able to say goodbye to my father, and they didn’t get the chance,” she says. “I needed more closure than I got.” For many, social media has become an increasingly important way to allow others to witness our grief.
Shannon O’Reilly’s brother, Thomas, passed away from addiction in 2019. Every so often, O’Reilly will post a memory or a photo of Thomas on Instagram. “With grief, I can be fine one day, but tomorrow I could be drowning. It’s this wave, where you’re out in the ocean and you’re just floating and trying to tread water and some days you can keep your head above and some days you can’t,” she says. “On the days I can’t, it helps me to find an old picture of him and put it on Instagram.” And sometimes, her brother’s friends will use the comments of the post to share their own funny or touching memories of Thomas. “I do enjoy the stories or somebody saying something about him, because it makes me realize that we all don’t just remember the bad times with him, that there actually were really good times. If I didn’t [share], I feel like I don’t know how else I’d keep his memory alive with other people not forgetting him, that he was here and that he mattered and that he wasn’t always like this.”
The grieving process doesn’t have a set end date, either, so social media can become a way to let your friends, family, and even coworkers know where you are in the process and how you’re doing, says Courtney Grady, whose father died in 2018. Grady started posting daily letters to her father on her Instagram page, where most of her colleagues followed her. “I could write how I was actually doing on my Instagram in a letter to my dad, and my coworkers could see that and could know,” she says. “It gave me that outlet in the morning so that I could have a little bit more strength to grin and bear the work day.”
But sometimes, the thought of exposing our grief and innermost thoughts to an audience can be intimidating. Before her husband, Mo, passed away due to a heart attack at the end of 2019, Dr. Alisha Reed had already built a substantial social media platform. After her loss, she wasn’t sure if she wanted to continue using social media at all. “At the time, I thought that I was going to be in a dark hole and crawl into a ball and just cry every day,” she says. But Reed did briefly share the news of Mo’s passing on her social media platforms, and in response, she received an immense amount of support from friends, family, and followers. “Everyone was so supportive and just reaching out and sharing memories and telling me to take my time and they would be here when I came back,” she says. “I decided to keep going and share my life as a widow and a single mom. And what I found was that a lot of people don’t share that part of their lives. They don’t talk about grief or loss, and it’s just blossomed into an even bigger platform because people were able to see how I was dealing.”
Reed touches on another benefit of using social media to share grief: Doing so can help others who have experienced a similar loss feel less alone. “Any time that a difficult issue, behavior, or experience is shared, it helps normalize that experience for other people who are going through it,” explains Pamela Rutledge, PhD, media psychologist and director of the Media Psychology Research Center.
By sharing on social media, Reed was able to connect with other widows. She started “Mo Mondays,” inspired by the trend Man Crush Mondays, to post her thoughts and feelings surrounding his death at the start of each week. “That kind of caught on to where people were looking forward to seeing the pictures of us and the memories,” Reed says. “I felt like it allowed other people to grieve too, people that may have been holding it in and not wanting to express it. That was a huge part of my healing for me, being able to share those experiences.” Although Reed no longer posts an Instagram every single Monday, she has created a growing Facebook group for young widows in her area and started a podcast where she discusses grief along with other widows. She describes the community that’s blossomed as comforting.
“We are just able to share our thoughts and emotions with each other because we understand each other,” she says. “We’re able to communicate with each other and share our events and anniversaries and milestones with each other.”
Grief is often isolating, — especially during the pandemic, when we’re already disconnected from our wider social circles. So being able to create or find a community that understands how you’re feeling or what you’re going through can be indescribably helpful. And for all its flaws, one huge benefit of social media is its ability to host communities.
After losing her best friend and her twin in a tragic car accident, Leah Vanderpool posted about it on TikTok. She took part in a trend in which users post video montages of their “soulmate.” “I wanted to show my twin sister, Lane, because she’s my soulmate,” Vanderpool tells Refinery29. “Then it blew up, and I didn’t realize how many twins also lost their twins.” Now, the original video she posted has over 4.6 million views. “It actually really helped, because a lot of twins recommended me to join some groups on Facebook for twin loss… I joined, and it’s just twins posting about their grief and their experiences and people commenting and being supportive,” she says. “I personally haven’t posted or anything, but I do go through and read everyone else’s.”
While sharing one’s grief on social platforms can be healing, being vulnerable about such personal and sensitive experiences online does come with some risks. “Brené Brown, another one of my favorite authors and speakers, said that we should only share our story with people who have earned the right to hear them,” Kelly says. “Something to remember when you’re posting online is that you’re actually sharing your story with everyone, you’re not just sharing your story with people who have earned the right to hear it.”
In other words, when you post online, you don’t have control over other people’s responses or reactions — and with platforms like TikTok, where content can go viral in an instant, you may be welcoming in some not-so-productive comments. “At first when I gained a lot of followers, I was kind of scared,” Vanderpool says. “It’s not that I get hate comments, it’s more insensitive comments, like people being nosy and wanting to know the full story about everything.”
That’s why it may be helpful to take a beat before posting about grief, or before checking the comments and reactions to any sensitive posts you have shared. You can also enlist a trusted friend to scan the comments or reactions on vulnerable posts for you, and to weed out anything that may be upsetting. But even when the reactions are all positive, it’s still smart to be prepared for any kinds of emotions that may come up for you after opening yourself up to a wider audience.
People grieved online before the pandemic began, and will continue to once it ends. But exactly how we use technology to process and share grief is sure to continue to change. “The platforms change, and then people change, and then the platforms change,” says Dr. Rutledge. “This is an evolving system. As people start sharing more personal experiences, it becomes a more normal thing.”
While Kelly says she loves “that social media is really shedding some light on what grief actually is,” ultimately, whether or how you choose to share your journey on a public or semi-public forum is up to you. Some may choose to grieve quietly, while others are more inclined to be open about their ongoing process. No matter what feels right, though, it’s nice to know that, in this way, social media is there for us if we need it.