One of the many things that have changed in the digital age is the way we grieve.
Researching our book, Digital Legacy Plan, (Self-Counsel Press March 2019), co-author Angela Crocker and I discovered some interesting research by professor Tony Walter, a sociologist from the U.K. who has written and taught widely on the social aspects of death, dying and loss.
In his examination of online memorial culture in the context of the history of mourning (New mourners, old mourners: online memorial culture as a chapter in the history of mourning, New Review of Hypermedia and Multimedia, 2015), he compares family and community contexts for mourning in pre-industrial times to the community approach emerging in today’s online communities.
In pre-industrial times, families were large, and communities were small and largely rural. Mortality rates, especially among children were high, and the tolling of the church bell notified the community that someone had been lost. Even if the deceased or bereaved were not well known to all residents of the village or town, the community mourned together.
In the 20th Century, as a result of urbanization, families spread out. Improved health care and birth control contributed smaller families and to lower childhood mortality rates. Death more typically occurred among the elderly, and grief became a much more private affair with death and dying largely handled by institutions.
Today, fueled by the Internet, grieving is once again becoming a community practice. In the 1990s, online grief support groups emerged, offering support and validation for mourners with shared loss, with membership unfettered by geography and virtual support available across time and space. This may very well have marked the beginning of the reemergence of community mourning. Add social media to the mix and the global reach of accessible, real-time communication has made it substantially easier to foster community.
Think about the tragic suicide deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. Most of us found out about this news via social media channels such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. We amplified the news by posting it online for friends and followers to see. Around the world, people expressed their shock, sadness, and sympathy online. Through shared grief, we sought comfort and understanding.
This is not just true of celebrity deaths. It is more and more common for us to use social media as a way to notify the wider community of the death or dying of loved ones and seek comfort and advice online. In the days of Covid, online mourning is becoming the norm. In the daily scrolling of social media feeds, we run the gamut of human experience. As we come to grips with a new way of being in community with one another, we need to understand how to deal with loss, grief, and conflict with sensitivity and compassion.