My friend Donna lost her husband in an auto accident two years ago. When she got to the hospital, she posted this sad news on Facebook, and she shared the loss and death of her husband from that moment on. She posted from the hospital emergency room, and from the funeral home. Friends rushed to her home, took care of the cats, cleaned the kitchen, brought her groceries, took her to the funeral, visited her every day for weeks. She said she would have barely survived without them.
I remember seeing what enormous support they gave her in those awful and bleak days.
She put up a page for her husband on Facebook, posted daily on Twitter about her struggle to cope with his loss and adjust to it. Last week, her face and his came up on Facebook, I saw her topic about him was still running, she was still posting about her grief and her friends were still commenting on it.
I wrote to her and asked how she was, and she said she was handling it, but was having trouble letting go and moving forward. Perhaps, she suggested, it was time to get off of Facebook, she was saying the same thing every day and her friends didn't seem to know what to say any longer.
"It's up to me now," she said.
I had another friend who wrote about the death of her mother, often quite powerfully, in much the same way. Two years later, she is still writing about it, and this idea of grief in the open – I am, as you know, committed to an open and transparent life – made me think about the fuzzy new boundaries of our new technology.
I've noticed, as a hospice volunteer, that social media and the Internet has altered the nature and scope of grieving, it is a fascinating and largely unexplored subject. My own sense of this new kind of public grieving is that it is powerful and extraordinarily helpful in the early stages, and then more complex and uncertain the longer it goes on. And nobody really knows how long it should and does go on.
Social media can, therapists have written, prolong grief, even enable it.
There is always a point, they all say, when the bereaved must let go and move on with their lives. There is no single time frame for that, grieving, I have seen, is intensely personal, it is very individual, it takes its own time and follows its own course. It is a process, and people who have lost loved ones are in it. They alone have the right to set the parameters. I learned in hospice that no one outside of their pain can or should tell them how to do it, no one can make it go away.
The worst thing I can ever imagine saying to someone in grief is "get over it," yet I am told people say it all of the time.
“You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken," wrote the author Anne Lamott, "and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.”
I first saw this open way of grieving – it was once an intensely private process – in the dog and animal world, since I write about dogs often.
On Facebook, there are countless pages and sites were people grieve for their dogs and cats, often intensely, emotionally and for many years. This grieving has sometimes troubled me, animal lovers often equate the death of animals with the death of people, and there sometimes seems a loss of perspective to me. People who think dogs and children are the same thing have lost perspective, in my mind.
A culture that believes dogs and children are the same thing is floundering a bit, it seems to me.
I wrote a book about grieving for pets called "Going Home," and a score of psychologists and social workers told me while researching the book that they were deeply concerned with the depth and extent of animal grieving. "When it goes on for years, " one told me, "something else is doing on, and people who need help aren't getting it because they think it's about the dog."
I started an online creative community called the Creative Group At Bedlam Farm, and I asked repeatedly that the site not be turned into an animal grieving site, as many people wished to do, that was not its purpose. People put up albums of cats and dogs from years ago, and said they cried almost every day for their lost pets. There was tremendous drama about lost animals. This was not what I wished for this new community.
I prevailed, but many people stormed off of the site in anger and accused me of being callous and cruel.
Human loss is very different, it can go on for years. It has its own inexorable stages.
I have always held odd ideas about animal grieving. My dogs are a source of great joy to me, I will never turn their loss into a misery that drags on for years. Dogs do not live as long as we do. You can get another dog, and do it again. You can not replace humans in that way. Death is a part of life, I understand that, but that is no comfort when the time comes.
I think of it as a powerful tool for comfort and support in the early days of loss, and then – most of the shrinks concur with this – grief often needs to shift to a more personal and private experience for healing to really begin. "People in grief have to figure out how to live, to move on at some point, and that is a very internal, not public experience. The other problem," said Susan, a psychiatrist who writes eloquently about grief, "is for the friends. How often do you say "I'm sorry for your loss." How often can you ask others to grieve with you?"
Grieving in public, she said, puts great pressure on friends and family. "In a way, you're asking them to grieve with you, but it's not their loss. They have to move on, also." I have another friend who made this turn soon after her spouse died, and I was impressed with it. She needed help and asked for help, she also chose after a few weeks to heal mostly in private, she has great strength.
It is not for me to tell anyone else how to grieve, or where or for how long. I believe social media is a powerful and very valuable new tool for sharing grief and being comforted and supported. There is no reason to be alone anymore. But as I have learned in my own life, social media giveth and taketh away, like all technology.
These new kinds of communities create new kinds of boundary issues, we have not worked them out. We don't yet know precisely what they are or where they are.
We all live in a fishbowl now, and it is not always easy or clear what is helpful and what is not, and where friendship begins and privacy and dignity ends. It is not always obvious where empathy begins and enabling ends, there is no natural cap online for grieving or change. Facebook is a incubator for co-dependence, it is wired into the software.
I sometimes wonder what I would do if Maria were to die before me, how I would grieve and where? Would I blog? Share photos and writing? Post about it on Facebook? I think I would write about it, especially on the blog, that has been the most healing place for me.But I imagine I would go in and out. I don't really wish to grieve in the open, my life is not all that open.
But I'm not sure I would go any farther than that. At some point, I think I would need to withdraw into myself and learn how to live without her.
I can't say I really know what I would do. It is good to think about it and try grasp the revolution in grieving going on all around me. I don't think grieving or healing is really a public process. But I suspect that view will change, the Internet is a tool, it can often be a tool for good.