Digital shrines to our loved ones can offer us a private, deeply personal way to maintain a connection with them after they're gone
Most of us have pretty much never lived our adult lives without the internet. It’s affected us in innumerable ways – some good, some very bad – and despite not really knowing what a world without it looks like, it still continues to surprise us. In our Extremely Online series, we explore the apps, trends, subcultures, and all the other weird stuff the internet continues to offer.
When I found out my friend Emma had died, I was away. My friends didn’t want to tell me and ruin my holiday, but Facebook had other plans; I woke up one morning to a news feed full of “rest in peace” and “we will miss you” posts. While I knew she was ill, I didn’t quite believe it at first; the cruel, cold, impersonal way I’d been told felt intangible. The first thing I did was check her Twitter, her Tumblr, and her Instagram for signs; the only connections I had to her. She had posted eloquently about her impending passing, and since then the internet has played an huge part in the way that I have grieved her; while it hurts to be reminded of her when I’m not expecting it, I’ve found comfort in social media. It’s allowed me to revisit the person I knew.
Where we once experienced our grief only through “real”, tangible things – letters, photographs, gravesides – we now have entire online archives that demonstrate who the person we loved really was, uncensored. While that can be a bad thing – Facebook memories is endlessly cruel for reminding us of everything we’ve lost – it can be comforting to have meticulously kept records of who a person really was, in their own words. I spoke to Sophie, who found out her friend Kit had died when she was scrolling through her Facebook feed one day. She told me that “in the first few days after his death, his page was flooded with messages of sadness, photographs, love, conversations between their friends who had never met.” While reading the posts was painful for Sophie, it was ultimately healing. She felt that anecdotes updating her on what Kit had been up to since they’d left school made her feel like she could prolong her connection to him.
Sophie told me that she initially worried about how she would cope when people stopped commenting on Kit’s last Instagram post, and that she “feels guilty” if she goes too long without checking. While social media does complicate all of our relationships and make us more obsessive, ultimately, Sophie says that being able to read Kit’s social media posts allowed her to have a connection that she otherwise might have lost. “His Facebook became a shrine to him, and watching that be built honestly helped me cope in a controlled, separate way, probably more than being surrounded by the grief in real life would have”, she told me.
“Seeing other people’s memories definitely feels like more of a collective thing, whereas grieving privately can feel so isolating” – Tom
Tom, who recently lost his auntie, told me that he regrets not adding her on Facebook while she was alive so that he could have a way to talk to her. He also told me that he finds it comforting reading anecdotes that other people wrote on the walls of friends that have passed because “picturing these funny little stories playing out” helps him to “remember how (they were) when (they were) alive”. Despite the jarring feeling of Facebook reminding us just how long it’s been since someone died, Tom feels that it’s ultimately outweighed by the benefits; social media is “better than a grave” because it “feels more like talking to someone, you can post on their wall in the same way you would've when they were alive” and “seeing other people’s memories definitely feels like more of a collective thing, whereas grieving privately can feel so isolating”.
But while many have found personal comfort in revisiting loved ones’ social media posts, there’s the concern of whether or not it’s “healthy” to spend so much time ruminating over everything they said when they were alive. Joan Hitchens, founder of navigatinggrief.com, told me that grief is always personal, and there are numerous influencers on our grief. “Photos and memories are important reminders of our loved ones, milestone events and traditions”, she explained. “The internet and social media platforms are becoming a bigger repository for our images and history across all types of family and friends’ connections”.
She added that “photos, sounds, memories, and media reminders can evoke powerful responses which may be loving and beautiful, even in tears, or take one back into the painful rabbit hole of despair”. Hitchens said that, as well as finding comfort or catharsis in revisiting social media, there’s also healing to be found in closed groups of people who seek support online, “which can be helpful in not being alone or might be a place one can remain in their own stories over and over again”.
“There is a lot in life that the internet has complicated irreparably; but with grieving, the positives generally outweigh the negatives”
Dr. Joanne Cacciatore, author of Bearing the Unbearable: Love, Loss, and the Heartbreaking Path of Grief, told me that because grief enacts itself individually, “different people may find benefit in connecting with their beloved’s social media presence”, adding that this isn’t just true for people, like those I spoke to, who’ve lost someone of a similar age to them. She told me that for grieving parents, “if their child was old enough to have a social media identity, then most parents do want to stay connected to that identity even if it comes with grief”. She added that there is “no empirical evidence that this practice is harmful” and that, in fact, “it may be one of many ways to maintain bonds with their child who died.”
There is a lot in life that the internet has complicated irreparably; but with grieving, aside from the negative impact of being shock-reminded of someone’s death when you’re casually scrolling, the positives generally outweigh the negatives. While we can get into unhealthy habits of obsessively revisiting someone’s social media, having a shrine or an archive of the snippets of a person they were willing to share with the world can be ultimately very positive. Finding ways to connect with other people who’ve lost the same person can be healing, too – and ultimately, it can be endlessly comforting to have a candid and unsanitised version of the person you loved, available to revisit without their family’s censorship.