Published: 18th June, 2021

Loss is one of the most universal human experiences. Whether it be a loved one, a dream career, or a special place, no one is immune to loss and its lasting effects. This is especially true for children and young people, who often experience this before reaching emotional maturity.

Any sort of loss can trigger complex emotional responses. Our inward thoughts and feelings are known as grief. The outward demonstration of these emotions is mourning, which is a vital part of the grieving process.

Because loss happens at different life stages for everyone, the way we respond is personal to each of us. In the past, this process used to be experienced more privately. It was communicated by letter, telephone, or an in-person conversation. The obituary section of the newspaper used to be the only public format for commemoration and communicating loss of life.

However, since the advent of social media, the way we live has changed drastically. It makes sense then that the way we experience loss has also changed.


What is Digital Mourning?

The concept of “digital mourning” is a relatively new one. It centres around those who use social media (or other digital platforms) to mourn the loss of a loved one. This ranges from posting in memoriam messages on someone’s public profile to using these platforms as a way to notify friends and family of a death. While there is no set schedule for these posts, they are more likely to occur during calendar holidays (such as Father’s Day, Christmas, etc) and significant anniversaries or birthdays. Digital Mourning is most commonly used by younger generations.

With social media being only a decade old we’re in unchartered territory, the path ahead marked for us by funeral selfies, elegiac Facebook statuses, RIP tweets, online shrines and Insta memorials.– Grazia

Facebook has “memorialisation settings” which allow users to nominate a legacy contact who can manage their profile if they pass away. Instagram offers the option to create a memorialised account or to delete the account altogether. On both platforms, if the memorialisation option is activated, the word “Remembering” goes in front of the person’s name on their profile (e.g. Remembering John Doe). Twitter announced last year it is developing a memorialisation option for their platform to be released later this year. Most other social platforms offer the option to delete the account when appropriate documentation is shown.

Memories

Of all social media platforms, Facebook does the most for digital remembrances. Unless the deceased person’s account has been deleted, other users are still able to post on their wall and tag them in posts. This is visible to all mutual friends or to anyone who visits the person’s account.

Facebook is also known for its Memories feature, which shows users posts from previous years on the same day they happened. They can then be reposted on an individual account.

These memories can be a great way to remember good times, thrilling announcements, or significant achievements. But it can also remind you of tragic events or difficult memories when you may be least prepared to see them, even if they were not upsetting when they happened.

The downside to Digital Mourning

When it comes to digital mourning, the very thing that makes it effective is also what makes it problematic – it’s public. There are no limits to this kind of post. While concerning for every age group, it is especially troubling for children, young people, or vulnerable people who may not have proper coping mechanisms in place to help deal with their grief.

“A few years ago, a good friend of mine took his own life. I will never forget the morning I found out. I was just getting ready, doing my normal routine of scrolling through social media, when I noticed a mutual friend had posted a lengthy tribute with a picture of him. I went through so many emotions in that minute of trying to figure out what had happened to him before I just broke down. It felt like the whole world crashed down around me. I couldn’t cope. It was – and still is – a horrible shock. I wish I hadn’t found out that way.”

– INEQE Safeguarding Group Staff Member

Though Facebook provides options for turning off memories of a specific person and for unfollowing users who might prompt uneasiness,
there is no algorithm to stop digital mourning posts from appearing on social media. They are becoming a natural part of the grieving process for many, especially young people – and that is okay.

If you notice someone posting what you feel is an excessive amount of digital mourning, there are a few things you can do:

  • Use the unfollow or mute features on social media to avoid potential triggers. This means you won’t see the content a user is posting and it is gentler than unfriending or blocking. Consider doing this for the children and young people in your care as well
  • Reach out to the person, even if it’s just to check in. A message or a phone call can help remind an isolated person they are not alone
  • Take a break from social media. If you or a young person in your care are struggling, it may be best to temporarily remove potential triggers

While digital mourning is becoming a part of how we grieve, the vulnerability these posts show needs to be considered. A user may feel pressured into sharing personal grief because they see others sharing theirs. Others may be critical of how public someone’s mourning process is, or may think someone is grieving for “longer than they should be.” The reverse of this is also true. Mourners may be criticised for posting too little or appearing happy “too quickly.” This is especially true in scenarios involving the death of a loved one.

Unkind and unsolicited behaviour might make a grieving person feel irrational or over-emotional and could push them further into isolation. It is especially a concern for children and young people as online platforms are their social forums. To them, online life is real life.

Supporting Young People Through Grief

We know how difficult it is to experience loss. It can be a time full of overwhelming emotion, uncertainty, and instability. If you are in mourning, it might be hard to help the children and young people in your care deal with their own grief. That is why it is important to recognise what you can do to help them:

  • Talk about grief openly with those in your care. Explain that grief is a process, not a task. It’s natural to have an uneven journey, and some days will feel brighter than others
  • Remind them not to be afraid of feeling pain. The most important step in processing grief in a healthy way is to acknowledge it

  • Give them time and space to feel. Don’t try to rush “feeling better” as it will only make a vulnerable person think they cannot trust you
  • Sometimes, it is better to stay quiet and listen. Even if you have lived-in experience, it may not be what is most helpful to someone grieving
  • Validate taking time to do things that make a young person feel like themselves. Point out that anyone who loves them wouldn’t want them to stop doing what makes them happy
  • Encourage reaching out, whether it be to a parent/carer, a friend, a trusted adult, or even a professional. Remind the child in your care how important it is to share these complicated feelings with people who can help sort through them
  • Don’t shut down any outward process of grief. Whether it be anger, fear, or depression, use it as a conversation starter to help them acknowledge what they are feeling and why
  • If a young person is feeling overwhelmed by social media, suggest restrictions or recommend they take a break until they are feeling more secure

It is important to remember that grief is something lived in and lived with. It does not go away. Rather, we learn to live with and accept this grief as it comes. There is nothing wrong with needing help to cope with grief.

 

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