TIME Social Media

How We Mourn in the Age of Social Media

Learning to cope with loss in the digital age

Correction appended May 10, 2:52 p.m.

My hometown was rocked by tragedy earlier this year when a local 24-year-old was killed while skiing in the backcountry. The news broke on Twitter: One dead, three rescued after avalanche near Vail, Colo. I scanned the article, fervently hoping I wouldn’t recognize the names of anyone involved. The skiers hadn’t yet been identified, so I did what any digitally dependent millennial would do: I turned to Facebook. Immediately, my News Feed revealed the facts in a way news sources hadn’t. The avalanche victim wasn’t a stranger. Tony Seibert, the one skier who perished, was my sister’s friend.

It’d only been a few hours since the accident, but already there was a virtual memorial on his Facebook wall: Friends telling him how much they loved him and would miss him; grade-school classmates recounting funny stories from childhood; college friends expressing their sympathy and sending prayers to his family. Even in death, social media is just that: Social. When someone passes away, his or her accounts remain unchanged, a representation of that person in death as much as they were in life. In fact, Facebook recently announced it will no longer limit access to the accounts of deceased members.

Technology has undeniably changed the way we mourn, giving us access to an instant support system. Those who can’t attend a funeral or memorial service in person can now send their condolences via text, email, FaceTime or Skype. We can view obituaries online and sign digital guestbooks. We can show our support by hitting the “Like” button. Facebook pages of those who are no longer with us can serve as a tribute to a life taken too soon, uniting those who are mourning, providing them with a sense of community, and helping them feel connected to the person they lost.

Though social norms for loss in the digital age are still evolving, the act of mourning online is now a gesture — evidence of sorts — that we were truly affected by a person’s passing. We often joke that if something’s not on Facebook, it didn’t happen, but at the crux of that joke is a kernel of truth. We’ve become so obsessed with documenting every aspect of our lives (or rather, with compiling perfectly filtered highlight reels) that it seems fitting to acknowledge the death of a loved one on social media.

It’s certainly easier to type a story once than it is to repeat it multiple times, but I often wonder what our motivation is in mourning so publicly given the sensitive, personal nature of grief. It takes strength to open yourself up to judgment and criticism by sharing your true feelings online. But how much of sharing our loss on social media is rooted in a desire to pay our respects, and how much in a desire to draw attention to the fact that the loss is somehow about us, too?

Mourning online allows us to stake our claim on the effect of a tragedy — even one that doesn’t have a direct impact on us. People race to share the news of a celebrity death (real or rumored) in a constant game of one-upmanship. Social media feeds into our desire to be the source of breaking information, to feel important, to be seen as knowledgeable and interesting. Endlessly retweeting tragedy becomes less about the expression of grief and more about wanting to prove we’re in the know and that we, too, were affected by the loss.

I faced this exact struggle in the wake of Tony’s death. As someone who didn’t know him well — we weren’t even Facebook friends — I felt like posting about his death was somehow a cry for digital attention, a claim to a closeness we didn’t share. At the same time, I felt compelled to post something in order to show support for my hometown, my community and mutual friends who were grieving. And while choosing to silent isn’t a reflection of whether we were affected, sometimes the culture of sharing makes it feel like that’s the implication.

There’s no “right” way to mourn, but I question whether Facebook — which seems more and more like a junkyard of complaints and raw emotions — does justice to our feelings about meaningful things like death if we discuss them on the same platform as complaints about our cable company. But for some, maybe the desire to share overshadows the desire for privacy. Maybe the allure of instant gratification in the form of likes, comments and favorites makes the pain seem more bearable. With each notification, we’re reminded that we’re not alone.

Perhaps by memorializing our loved ones online or by live-tweeting death, we’re searching for solace and simply doing our best to cope. Or perhaps the “act of retweeting, favoriting, and following those who will never tweet again” becomes a sign of solidarity and respect. As their number of followers surges, so does our fascination.

I’ve found myself returning to Tony’s Facebook page lately, drawn to it by a combination of morbid compulsion and a desire to see how his friends and family are preserving his memory online. Visiting these types of pages is addictive — they’re digital graveyards we can’t help but visit. The strange part about Tony’s page is that at a quick glance, you would never even know he passed away. Within the past few weeks, he’s been tagged in countless status updates and videos and photos. Despite the fact that he’s gone, he is still very much alive — at least online.

That’s the thing about mourning in the age of social media: The deceased have the power to live on, but as the ones still living, there’s no Facebook status that can do justice to our loss, no 140-character tweet that can sum up our sadness and no Instagram filter that can soften the jagged edges of our pain. At the end of the day, maybe it’s okay to just turn off our phones and let ourselves mourn.

The original version of this article incorrectly described the number of fatalities.

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