Emily Postmodern: #Mourning In The Time Of Social Media

Victorian-era manners and etiquette don’t really have much of a place in contemporary society. Every now and then you might find yourself in a situation where deference to one of those residual politesses is expected or even useful, but in your daily life, knowing which fork to use isn’t going to help much, at all. However, there are still some events when the rigid protocol of the Victorians would be a welcome guide.

Mourning, a subject heavily codified in the 19th century, is complicated by our 21st century culture of social sharing and technology. Even before Victorians micromanaged everything down to the underpants of a grieving person, many cultures had serious rules to help process death. From the hiring of public mourners to withdrawal from public life, mourning “correctly” was as much about social mores as it was about the actual loss of a loved one.

Social media has changed how we process our major life events. It never really lets you break up. We plan for how our accounts will be managed when we die. I know I’m not the only one who has to hold back tears when Facebook suggests I “catch up” with a loved one who has passed away. Just as 19th century technologies like photography gave more people access to memorializing the dead, social media spaces have become virtual memorials. But, what’s the appropriate way to interact with the social media presence of a dead friend or family member? How can you honor your own grief without feeling like you’re oversharing, asking for likes or potentially reminding someone else of a painful loss they might still be processing? Honestly, I don’t think there’s a right or wrong thing to do here. Grief is personal and everyone mourns and heals in their own way, but I do think it’s important to be thoughtful about how we use social media to process.

Social media is a great way to reach out to the family members of the person who has died to the them know that you’re thinking of them. It can be a good way to find out if there’s a memorial you can contribute to or a place you can send a card. But, remember that overtime you tag that person in a post, you are possibly alerting every single one of his or her 1,200 internet friends, not just your own curated list of 243. Be considerate. Try not to post publicly what might be more appropriate for a private message. Unless you’re a member of the family, try to keep your posts about the awesomeness of the person who has passed and not about how this is your tragedy. Social media makes even the most genuine sentiment feel a little bit performative, so be cautious when rending your virtual garments.

As upsetting as it can be to have an emotionless algorithm reminding us of a loss, social media spaces also provide a virtual place for people to remember someone together. In a way, they’re similar to the pilgrimage destinations of Père Lachaise Cemetery  or Joshua Tree National Park. Someone doesn’t have to be a dead rockstar to have people leaving photos and sharing memories. It also allows anyone to do this, even when there isn’t a physical memorial to visit. It can be strange to see people hashtagging memorials and liking sad posts, but in a way this is our era’s black armband, something everyone can participate in and use to communicate their grief to the world at large. If you feel like you don’t know what to do,remember you aren’t obligated to do anything. If you want to post something just keep your post celebratory and thoughtful and you will be fine.

Julianna Rose Dow is a thank-you note enthusiast working in higher-ed communications and marketing in NYC. She likes puns, telling people what to wear and baking with bourbon. Got a burning etiquette question? Drop her a line here.