Facebook, Tragedy, and the Art of Grief Performance

When you grieve, how do you tell Facebook?

It seems like a silly question. I’ve just lost someone important to me. Why would I care what I post on some stupid website? Why would I even log on?

But like it or not, social media has a presence in all aspects of our modern lives—and that includes grief.

We may not think about it until tragedy strikes, but we have a natural inclination to externalize our feelings about loss. We’re social people, and grief is performative. And death happens.

It’s normal and natural to feel obligated to perform grief. It can be an important part of the process of grieving, to show that your life is changed, and that you’re affected by your loss. We cry, we dress in black. And apparently, these days, we also change our profile pictures. Make a status update. Post on the wall of someone also affected, or of the person we lost.

And on a practical level, it’s become almost a necessity to have an external-facing proof of your grief. We must tell the community at large what has happened. It’s a post-print-obituary, ever-expanding world—so where else will people learn about significant losses in their friends’ lives, than on social media? Plus, telling people that loss has happened on Facebook is easier than a more personal text, a phone call, or an awkward confrontation in person. One single post, and the social network becomes your town crier, sharing your news to others so you don’t have to. People will now know why you’re visibly upset if they see you around, or why you won’t be coming to brunch this week.

All this came to a head for me last week, when Facebook alerted me to the news of the attacks in Paris.

In the wake of the Paris tragedy (and the subsequent media chattering about THE RIGHT WAY TO SHOW SUPPORT), Vox published an article that so beautifully articulates the connection between social media grief and history. Here’s just an excerpt:

“What I understand now is that to some degree, we weren’t mourning in any concrete, specific way. We were making ourselves available the only way we knew how, through a kind of performance of grief, a way of saying, “We are here, and we know you are in pain, even if we can’t understand it.”

I’ve long thought of this response as a sort of group consciousness. One person might feel something intensely, and then it ripples outward through everybody else, until even those at the very edges feel its dull echoes.

In the age of the internet, this phenomenon has gone global.”

Communities grieve together. The feelings of loss ripple outward through the network of people who are affected by it.

In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, people changed their profile pictures to photos—some of them of the city itself—overlaid with the colors of the French flag. Although it may seem new, this is just traditional grief with new packaging. This is normal. This is grief, in the age of social media. Facebook has facilitated a way for people countries away to lift up Paris,  so that the global community around Paris can come together to grieve.

Yet, we’ve seen people from all over rise up to ridicule those who’ve switched their profile photos. That doesn’t do anything. We need to do more. Of course, I won’t change my profile picture, because I think that’s a paltry show of support. Others died, too, in different cities. Why aren’t we changing our profile pictures to support those cities, too?

What’s important to realize is that this is sometimes how communities grieve. This is modern loss. If you are affected by Paris, and you are offered a chance to perform grief in a certain way, it’s up to you to decide if that performance suits you—not to determine if on a grander scale, you’d prefer different grief from others. If changing your profile picture isn’t your form of grief, that’s okay. But if it is, that’s okay, too.

It is so unnecessary to police others’ grief, especially in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy. If grief is not destructive, if it is not harming the individual or others, then who are we to stop it? Grief after a terrible event is natural. It is normal. Grief is how we process loss.

There will be time later to talk about how we, as a global community, can better support people in cities that feel farther removed. And we should have these conversations—they will be critical to growing as people, and pushing back against fear and terrorism. But the feeling of grief, especially communal grief, is motivated by compassion. We should nurture this compassion, try to understand the grief we feel, and build on this feeling to better our world. No grief is made better by shame.

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