Magazine article Psychology Today

All That Remains

Magazine article Psychology Today

All That Remains

Article excerpt

IN 2012JAMIE Daugherty opened her Facebook account and saw that she had received a message from a beloved cousin. The cousin disclosed that she was moving to a new home-without her husband. "He is just too stern and aggressive,"she wrote. "I need to be away From him." Daugherty replied,"If you need anything, ask and I'll no my best. Can't wait to catch up."

A couple of months later, Daugherty was stunned to learn that her cousin, alongwithher cousin's two young daughters, had been killed. The husband was arrested and ultimately convicted oftheir "murder. In the wave of grief that followed, Daugherty found herself reaching out in the digital space where she and her cousin had so recently communicated. In public posts and private messages to the deceased woman's still-active Facebook account, she asked pained questions, expressed sadness, and voiced regret that they hadn't spent more time together:

"You and your beautiful girls will live forever because our love for you will always exist."

"The tears still come when I think of you being gone."

"I keep remembering all our youthful memories and how many ways I looked up to you."

"I fully knew that it wasn't her," Daugherty explained recently. But, as she put it, "So much of who we are gets shared on social media that it's almost a digital you. It feels as if a small part of her will hear my words."

Despite the sudden, tragic nature of the loss, Daugherty's impulse in its aftermath was not unusual. As with so many facets of life, social media has changed the way many of us experience death and bereavement; when someone dies, Facebook is frequently one "place" where those who knew and loved the deceased convene to express condolences and grief. Family and friends may create a group for sharing or request that Facebook designate the page of the deceased as a memorial ("Rememberingjane Smith"), preserving the person's online activity in digital amber. Visitors post poems,songs, and pictures of the deceased grinning in happy times. They expound on the person's admirable integrity, generosity, and kindness and write vivid remembrances of teenage antics, college road trips, and personal obsessions. Very often, people address their feelings directly to the dead: "I miss you like crazy." "We love you always and forever!" "Still can't believe u are gone."

In the hodgepodge of a Facebook feed-or on Instagram, Twitter, and other sites where users remember the dead-it can be jarring to see news about a person's death beside snapshots from last night's party or the latest viral video. Yet as contemporary as the phenomenon seems, rousing the memory of the dead via social media is more like a new twist on a primal human behavior. It may even represent a return of sorts to an older mode of grieving.

George Bonanno, a clinical psychologist and grief expert at Columbia University, points out that the kind of collective mourning that takes place on Facebook is "a lot like the way people used to honor the dead and grieve, which is as part of a large community." As death experienced via social media becomes ever more entrenched as a "new normal," researchers find that it can bring the bereaved much-needed comfort-as well as particular kinds of unease.

HOLDING ON TO THE DEAD

Communicating with the deceased in writing, thoughts, or speech is typical for the bereaved-and it started long before social media. "Talking out loud to the dead, especially at cemeteries, happens quite a bit," saysjocelyn DeGroot Brown, a communication researcher at Southen Illinois University Edwardsville. Typically, she explains, "people know that their loved one is dead, so they're talking to what's called the 'inner representation' of the deceased. The living think about how they believe the deceased would respond, and they give themselves feedback."

The fact that people now use social media to communicate with the dead is just a natural extension of this practice. …

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