Grief and mourning are complicated emotions to navigate, made even more so when combined with the ever-changing social conditions of digital culture. You want to post about your friend who passed away, but you don’t want to post about them too much. You want to grieve with a community of friends, but you don’t know if your relationship with the person you’ve lost is close enough to warrant sorrow on your part. You want to show support to other loved ones who are grieving their losses, but you don’t know what is appropriate.
Grief is all-encompassing and inescapable — both IRL and online. Everything shifted in how we participated in mourning someone’s death once the COVID-19 pandemic struck. We couldn’t meet up in person; couldn’t hold wakes; couldn’t even say goodbye to our loved ones in person in the hospital. Unable to mourn in the ways we were used to, for months, we had to grieve online, where communities for grief thrived due to the unprecedented circumstances. A plethora of communities specifically dedicated to grief exist online: GriefTok on TikTok, dozens of pages on Instagram, r/grief on Reddit, pages on Facebook, you name it. The lyrics “take her name out of your mouth / you don’t deserve to grieve” are highlighted in the more than 87,000 TikTok videos using CRAWLERS’ “Come Over (Again).” Like all pieces of life that take the dangerous road from reality to social media, something shifts in how we feel, relate to, and examine our grief when we share it online. This can be good, bad, and complicated — much like the process of grief itself.
Jensen Moore’s cousin died in 2011. Almost immediately following her death, Moore noticed that everyone — family, friends, anyone who knew her — was posting about her cousin on her cousins’ Facebook page. A page that had once glistened with life from Moore’s cousin now served as a memorial.
“I attended the funeral and the wake, and even people who were at those events were on her page eulogizing her there,” Moore, who is now an assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma, remembers. “The in-person event almost seemed as though it was meant more for the family than to share about her.”
It got Moore thinking about how the internet has changed the way we grieve. She began tapping into some of the research coming out of clinical psychology about how people who are dying use social media as a sort of diary to post about their last days, knowing it will live on after them. This “opened up a whole venue for me to look at the actual mourner, and how the mourner was going to respond versus the person who was trying to share their life before they died.”
Moore set out to study this space herself. In one of her research papers, Social Media Mourning: Using Grounded Theory to Explore How People Grieve on Social Networking Sites, she found that people preferred grieving on social media for a variety of reasons. It allows them to be able to reflect without having to be forced into face-to-face interactions; to mourn and grieve privately, but to connect with a community immediately when they were ready.
That’s the same reason one of my Instagram followers told me she prefers grieving on Instagram. She said it was “easy for friends to send words of support without being in awkward long conversations where you don’t know what to say.” Another follower said it was helpful to know you have the love and support of your friends and that it’s “nice to have a way to let everyone know without having to individually reach out to people.”
At the same time, that follower told me it’s “also frustrating because everyone says the same thing, ‘sorry for your loss.’ [It’s] helpful that they are thinking about you but also not, because thinking is not a hug.”
How do people grieve on Instagram?
One way people grieve on Instagram is to refer to a page like a memorial. If someone you know has passed away, immediate, verified family members can request that the page be removed. But anyone can submit a request to Instagram to memorialize the account instead, according to Instagram. Instagram does require proof of death — like a link to an obituary or news article — before it will memorialize an account, and immediate family members can override a request.
As Vice pointed out in a piece on how COVID-19 impacted grief, memorializing people on social media is just the latest iteration of a tradition we’ve been participating in for centuries.
“New media technology will inevitably be used to memorialize the dead. It’s just what we do,” John Troyer, the director of Bath University’s Centre for Death & Society, told Vice. “Now, this does not devalue the grief, which is always the risk of any new technology — because it is new it will initially be described as being inappropriate to use. I remember, many years ago, the gnashing of teeth over the use of Facebook to remember someone who died, and how that cheapened the experience of grief. Which, of course, was not true.”
Desmond Patton, a professor at the Columbia School of Social Work and Department of Sociology, told Mashable that Instagram has introduced “new ways of extending how we have traditionally grieved.”
Before Instagram, we still wrote messages to our loved ones to comfort them in grief, connected with our community, shared information, and shared obituaries. But Patton says that what makes Instagram different is that it “allows us to bring others into that experience.”
That convening power of Instagram, while it is so basic, is critically important, because it allows people to share and to be in community when things are getting really hard.
“It allows you perhaps a space to process because you may not have the words or you may not feel that you have the physical community to be able to process this,” Patton said. “There is something that happens behind the keyboard that allows for various levels of vulnerability that I think are really important as well. And then it allows you to find others that are grieving. And that convening power of Instagram, while it is so basic, is critically important, because it allows people to share and to be in community when things are getting really hard.”
Insta-grief as a form of activism
Oftentimes, we aren’t just grieving our loved ones alone. In some cases, we’re grieving someone who was lost due to violence — police violence, violence at the hands of the state, and more. In those cases, grieving on Instagram can be a form of activism, too.
Jolene Holgate, the training and education director for the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women, told Mashable that social media is a powerful tool for movement-building and education. She said that when Native communities experience a huge loss, Instagram allows them to reach more people.
“Grieving George Floyd, our Asian relatives who are being attacked, and things like that [which] were happening in the last couple of years and even today not only allows us to connect with one another and to feel for and sympathize and empathize with the families and those involved, but I think it also activates people to want to do something, say something, repost it and re-share it on their page and educate one another,” Holgate said. “And that’s all a part of movement-building.”
That kind of activism can make some people feel obligated to post, something we should probably investigate internally.
“Some people feel pressure, particularly when the grief is one at the societal level. So for example, if we’re grieving Breonna Taylor, if we’re grieving George Floyd, and you are not commenting on that death and the effect that it has on you and on our society and our culture, then you might get questions about the legitimacy of your political nature,” Patton said. “I think at an individual level, it gets really complicated, because there’s a question about oversharing and folks seeking support in perhaps more disingenuous ways. Maybe you didn’t have the relationship with the individual that you’re claiming to.”
Oftentimes, our social media posts in the immediate aftermath of a public incident are compared back to what — and how — we posted in the past. If you never posted about racial inequity before George Floyd’s death but are now posting as if you’re an expert, it can be off-putting, and feel fake, for followers who have been active in the movement for years. There might not be a perfect answer for what users should do in situations like this, but consistency is important; caring when it isn’t comfortable is important; and bystander intervention is important. Otherwise, you run the risk of being as tone-deaf as the FBI mourning Martin Luther King Jr.’s death.
Grief hypejacking, grief trolls, and grief tourists
In a study published in May 2022 that looked into the commodification of grief on Instagram, author Crystal Abidin coined the term “grief hypejacking” to refer to the phenomena in which everyday users and influencers bandwagon on internationally trending social media hashtags about grief to “redirect attention to themselves or hawk wares.”
There are also grief trolls, who go onto grief memorials and “basically try to stir things up,” Moore said. Grief trolls typically set their sights on public memorials for tragic events. Then there are the grief tourists, who Moore says are “people who go on memorial pages just to see the mourning that’s happening.” Grief tourists are, in a way, participating in emotional rubbernecking — turning to see how others are reacting to tragedy. While many of us are guilty of morbid curiosities, grief tourists take this a step further by taking up space in others’ grief.
“In some cases [grief tourists] will interject themselves and talk about, ‘Well, I lost somebody myself,’ or, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry for your loss,’ but they’re not really mourning,” Moore said. “They’re just joining in so that they can see what’s happening and they can see the emotional roller coaster that others are going through.”
On the other side is grief policing, which is when people try to control how others should or should not be mourning online.
“For example, [after] Kobe Bryant’s death a lot of people were online saying, ‘Well, you didn’t know him, so why are you so worked up about this and why are you grieving about it?'” Moore said. “There is this idea that if you’re really not close to a person [who has died] or if that person isn’t in your network or sphere, then you shouldn’t be grieving.”
But that kind of policing isn’t useful, Patton argues, “because it doesn’t help us to understand why this person is here in the first place.” And everyone does have a right to grieve public figures — they can be losses to our communities whether we knew them personally or not.
“Folks should have organic and healthy spaces to grieve,” Patton said. “We need to imagine these domains as places where people feel that they’re having healthy and healing grieving spaces. But the idea that we need to figure out who’s grieving how and why, I don’t think that’s a great use of our time or our skill or our capacity in these spaces.”