These days, almost nothing is sacred. With social media becoming a ubiquitous communication device, there is almost no topic that isn't exhaustively tweeted about, discussed, and debated publicly for the world to see. The very essence of social media relies on people's willingness to engage with their friends, colleagues, and even complete strangers without any natural filter.
For millennials especially, who have grown up knowing only a world with Facebook and Twitter, social platforms are a daily way of life - and the primary means of communication. Gen X'ers and Baby Boomers have adapted ably, albeit less naturally, to sharing their inner-most thoughts with the world.
But when it comes to death, we pause. What's appropriate? What's culturally acceptable? And, if we're being honest, what would our followers like to see?
When celebrities die, millions of people take to social media to express their shock, grief, and sadness. This strikes me as odd, because this behavior would not likely occur in any other forum. How much water cooler talk was there at work the day after Robin Williams died? Or Joan Rivers? Did anyone call a friend to reminisce about their favorite movies or TV shows featuring the departed? Yet our Facebook and Twitter feeds were practically taken over by RIP messages from seemingly everyone. Why the apparent double standard? Why do people take to social media when it is clear they wouldn't engage in almost any other communication channel with the same message? To me, these messages of grief come off as fake, the writers mostly seeking attention in the form of social engagement with their posts.
When personal friends or family members die, it becomes even more complicated. How do we respond? How do we express our real shock, grief, and sadness when it's someone we actually know? And is social media even the right forum?
Most of us know that we shouldn't be the public bearers of other people's bad news, deferring instead to those who are more immediately grieving. Yet it's not uncommon to see a friend or extended family member being the first one to share the news on Facebook, rather than the immediate family. (To be fair, this happens for happy occasions too, like wedding engagements or pregnancy announcements.) Would this ever happen outside the world of social media? What causes people to violate someone's privacy at such a sensitive time? Has the social-media-as-a-news-source phenomenon caused people to want to be first with the news no matter the impact to anyone else?
Alternatively, and more appropriately, we wait for the immediate family to post something first. We regularly check their feeds, waiting for the appropriate sign that it's OK to comment on the situation. When the post comes, it's painful and gut-wrenching to read, and we quickly try to conjure up the right words in response. The words are so critical, clearly, because they'll be seen not just by the grieving but all of their friends (and possibly ours) too. It's not just about them; it's about us too - we need to look good. This is the crucial difference between posting a condolence message in social media and choosing a more old-fashioned but likely more altruistic and meaningful method - like sending a card, calling the family, or offering to help in some way.
Today's reality is that it's just easier and quicker to post some words on someone's Facebook page and then return to our daily lives, having "engaged" with those mourning but not having to expend much effort in doing so. It's the same way we treat birthdays; when Facebook tells us it's someone's big day, we quickly post something on their wall and get on with our day.
The irony is that social media ends up being the least social of our alternatives, and the death of a loved one requires a deeper engagement than Facebook or Twitter could ever provide.
My own gut says to reject the superficial gesture of posting some kind words on Facebook and instead do something more meaningful for the person in mourning. Ideas include lending an ear to listen on the phone or in person; offering a literal shoulder to cry on; bringing over a home-cooked meal for the family; making a meaningful charitable donation; and of course, attending the funeral.
What do you think? Please post your thoughts and other ideas in the Comments section.