Monday, July 22, 2013

Death, Grief, and Facebook

This lion is sad, and so are parts of this post.

"Well, what is this that I can't see,
With ice-cold hands takin' hold of me?"

"Well I am Death, none can excel;
I'll open the door to heaven or hell."

"Whoa, Death," someone would pray,
"Could you wait to call me another day?"

—"O Death," Ralph Stanley

A year ago today, I got a surprise phone call from my uncle. I was pleased to see his name come up on my phone, as I don't often get to talk to him and I think he's a cool guy. I picked up the phone and said hello. "James," he said, "Grandma Jackie was out on a bike ride this afternoon and she collapsed. She passed away. I'm trying to get a hold of your dad; will you tell your sisters while I try and call him again?" I agreed, and after asking him how he was handling the death of his (and my father's) mother—he hadn't really processed it yet; neither had I—I hung up and called my sisters to let them know the bad news.

Grandma Jackie was gone out of the world; she had been the lynchpin of my family since before I was born, the foundational dispenser of grace, wisdom, and love to two generations of Davisson children, and suddenly she was no more. I was sad she was gone; I was sad I hadn't been able to say goodbye. I was sad because I hadn't called on her birthday the week before, and now I would never get the chance tell her happy birthday or anything else, ever again.

I took a day off work just to sit in my room and cry, wrapped in a blanket and sitting on the floor.

A few days passed; the family gathered in Indiana. There was a wake, a funeral, and a graveside service. We grieved together and started to move on with our lives.

These death rites were undeniably helpful for me and my family. I've written a little before about growing up without a lot of religious ritual in my life. While the ritual of the wake, funeral, and graveside service were extremely helpful in moving on from the feeling of total loss and absolute grief, there were times I wished I had a more individual, public, and performative method for dealing with my grief. I didn't necessarily want to wait until the funeral to start to process my feelings, for one thing, but more than that, I wanted something more concrete and personal than passively viewing the grave or saying a few words to those gathered at the service. Like Jacob grieving for Joseph, part of me wanted to tear my clothes and walk around in special mourning garments.

But I'm not Jacob, nor am I a member of any other culture with individualized mourning traditions. If I put ashes on my head or shave off my beard or hair, I'm more likely to confuse people than to appropriately and successfully convey my state of grief and bereavement to those around me. Instead, I turned to Facebook. In fact, most of my family did.

Our reactions on Facebook varied; some posted memories of Grandma's life, while others simply expressed sadness and loss. There were pictures of Grandma posted on walls; many changed their profile pictures to pictures of Grandma, or pictures with Grandma. People asked for prayer and thanked others for their support. A few went directly to Grandma's wall and wrote something there, addressing their words directly to her. I, meanwhile, attempted to fulfill my desire to connect to a ritualistic past by blacking out my profile picture and posting KJV Bible passages that I felt reflected my anguish. To each their own. 

Cousins with grandparent(s). I'm the bowl-cut kid glowering in the middle left of the first picture.

It is popular and very possibly quite valid to claim that social media in general and Facebook in particular are not primarily about forming genuine connections with others, but instead are about feeding our egos. I often feel this way myself: when I'm being rational, I can see that my motivation for posting a link or writing a joke is always at least partially driven by how good it feels to get "likes." And even as I was putting up my blacked out pictures and quoting ancient Near Eastern meditations on mortality ad nauseam, I started asking myself: where does this "Facebook grief" fit into this notion, that participating in social media equals narcissism?

Actually, Facebook isn't all about me or you; it's all about this guy.

While there's certainly an argument to be made for Facebook grief being just another example of social media feeding the ego (those old pictures of Jackie as a teenager and Grandma and the grandkids in the 1990s got a lot of likes, after all!), I really think there's more to it than that. In fact, I'd like to argue that Facebook grief is a compelling substitute for the kind of individualized grief rituals I spoke about earlier.

Here's the argument: there are lots of different rituals people use to mourn publicly, but they all tend to include people altering both their outward appearance and behavior, with the combined goal of (1) expressing the feeling of extreme sadness at the loss of a loved one through concrete means and (2) informing others of the reason for this behavior without having to go through the painful process of telling everyone in conversation.

Facebook grief also fulfills these functions: (1) Through posting pictures and creating apprpriate statuses, Facebook users can (semi-)publicly express and work through their feelings in an open and concrete way, instead of bottling up emotions and trying to process them internally. What's more, this Facebook grief allows people to grieve in their own way, which a more formalized public ritual might not. (2) Unless they are expressing their grief very cryptically ( me, sigh), the bereaved can quickly inform their Facebook friends of what has happened and they will not have to engage their friends in conversation in order to explain their behavior and emotional state.

We all gotta die. And that's weird.

I didn't have a time-honored way to publicly and personally mourn my grandmother's death. But I did have social media, which served as an outlet for my emotions and as a way (eventually) to inform others of why I was feeling bad. It was a really good thing for me, and I believe that it can be good for others, too.

Photo sources: 
Photo 1 (modified)
Photo 2
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Photo 5

1 comment:

  1. I concur with the value of Facebook in the ongoing activity of grieving. Because my son had an account, I can go there to read his friend's memories of him. I also post thoughts about him, sometimes to him. It feels like a personal space, private yet public only to his "friends." Somehow his presence is still 'there.'