The Fraught Culture of Online Mourning

Nowadays, we live online, and so we grieve here too. But there are limits to the comfort digital mourning can provide.

Rachel Vorona Cote | Longreads | May 21, 2019 | 15 minutes (3,975 words)

 

My mother died shortly after 4 a.m. in the pitch black of a November morning. By roughly 8:30 a.m. that day, the 29th, I had alerted my Twitter and Instagram followers, as well as my Facebook friends. I copied and pasted a few lines across the three platforms, words hastily cobbled together in something akin to a fugue state, accompanied by stray photos of my mother that I had saved on my phone — I had posted about her frequently as her condition worsened, particularly after she arrived at that grim point at which death became imminent death.

Now she was gone, and it seemed appropriate, even convenient, to let people know through these broad, digital strokes. Lethargic, I tapped out my brief requiem, hit post, and then crouched against the mattress, covers pulled beneath my chin — our linens had always, somehow, retained Mom’s smell, and in spite of grief’s zombie adrenaline, the fragrance of clean cotton and vague flora soothed me.

Relatively speaking, I took to social media quite soon after Mom breathed her last, and when I consider this, it feels — at least immediately — both crass and bizarre. I think about the thread of time that stretches from Time of Death to Time of Post, a listless and flimsy string tangled by my befuddled senses, one minute machete-whetted, the next, utterly blotted out.

Relatively speaking, I took to social media quite soon after Mom breathed her last, and when I consider this, it feels — at least immediately — both crass and bizarre.

During Mom’s last couple of months, my tweets had become something of a public diary, more baldly earnest than ever before. It often felt foolhardy, this attempt to convey via social media what death brings: Twitter couldn’t convey the ambient fuzz hissing inside my head as Dad called the hospice service to report that Mom was gone. Instagram couldn’t capture my dumb, feral resistance to the sight of the funeral director’s assistant wheeling a stretcher through our front door. It was board stiff, my sluggish brain noted, coughing up a few desperate sparks of perception, and there was no pillow. How could I express online the watery viscerality of my knees buckling — accompanied by nausea and, briefly, the urge to protest, to rattle the stretcher like a locked door as I screamed, “No, you cannot take Mom from us!” — and how, instead, I dropped onto the kitchen floor, stroking the ears of my sister’s husky, Anya, with painstaking exertion? As if the telltale shuffling in the next room were innocuous, as if Mom weren’t being stuffed into a bag and carted away? I can hardly articulate these things now, just more than a year later, in words uncircumscribed by Twitter’s character limit.

Nevertheless, I cannot seem to stop trying to write about Mom on social media. At first, there was a practical component: The thought of telling everyone I knew, individually, that Mom had died imbued me with the desire to crawl into a cave, never to emerge again. But after her memorial services — there were two, one in Virginia Beach, where my sisters and I had grown up, and one in Mom’s hometown, Plains, Pennsylvania, where she is buried — my grief and I were abandoned, without structural opportunities for expression. Sometimes it stared me down like a tiger, mutating into a menacing presence that bore down against my forehead and glared at me as I lay prone in bed. But in the blink of an eye, grief could become something more emollient, yet no less forceful: thick and heavy like the piles of blankets shrouding me, and viscous, too; it sank into my skin like spilled ink drenches paper.


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Either way, grief held me captive, and I acquiesced to it completely. Yet, despite a disinclination to engage with the world in any material way, I felt compelled to signal my heartbreak, to wave it like a black flag. Tweeting about my mother’s death, and posting photos of her on Instagram, became my own imperfect Victorian mourning ritual, a process through which I took public stock of my grief and asked — still ask — others to bear witness. I craved solitude more than my extroversion has ever permitted, but I discerned the limits with somatic clarity: I could not endure this ordeal alone, and without a space to give grief’s protean bulk a more legible narrative shape, something I could reread and digest. But the internet turns on the flush of immediacy: As the event of my mother’s death gradually, achingly, recedes, transforming, according to outward perception, into a temporal relic, I begin to doubt what I can demand of my online community. Perhaps there will come a day when I am gently judged for this long, discursive trail of mourning. And no matter what, I must grapple with one unmerciful fact that grows monstrously white-hot, like the flash of torched magnesium: Writing out my grief and leaning on the company of friends and strangers are comforts born from acknowledgment; they offer no curative measure. Grief, unlike my mother, will endure for as long as I do.

***

Death’s incorporation into American culture has always been rickety at best. It happens not so much within our communities, but at the spokes, cordoned off to sites unseen, uttered in the hushed, ungainly language we lean upon when we’re talking about things we’d prefer to ignore, that we treat as purely theoretical until the flesh of it stares us in the face. People do not die; they “pass,” a murky term that suits our collective discomfort and, in its ubiquity, transforms the departed into vague events: entities who have been reduced to some beclouded forward motion. Embedded in this euphemism is our most strident anxiety: Death brings us to an utter halt, and we do not want to imagine ourselves, or those we love, in an infinite and unconscious stasis, whatever our views on the afterlife may be.

And because we do not know how to speak about death — and because its presence reminds us that mortals only borrow time — we pack it away into gray-dim and cloistered hospital rooms in a feeble attempt to control its migrations. We recite “Sorry for your loss” with knee-jerk roteness, as if asking pardon for our tardy response to an email. Or, we say nothing at all, because it is easier — even easier than dashing off the lines, “I’m sorry. I’m here for you,” and meaning it.

A corpse, the physical conclusion of every human body, is treated as a ghoulish taboo, suited only for funeral parlors and blood-spattered horror flicks. We rely on imperfect conduits like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to circumvent faux pas and misunderstandings. When the performance of grief was more formal, bereavement was not only more obvious, it was elevated to a form of aesthetic presentation. Victorian mourning culture, for example, was severe, almost punishing — particularly for women, upon whom the brunt of the ritualistic responsibility fell. For a widow, mourning lasted at least two years and was partitioned into three stages. Moreover, it demanded the utmost sartorial modesty in an era when this was already the order of the day: It would be unseemly, after all, for a woman to take pleasure in her femininity when duty demanded that she embody chaste melancholy (wearing jewelry was largely verboten, for instance, although pearls were acceptable in later stages of mourning, so long as they signified tears). Nonetheless, these practices did offer the benefit of communicating one’s grief to the world without needing to say much at all. When a woman was in “deep mourning” — the first stage of grieving the loss of a parent, spouse, or child — etiquette demanded the wearing of a black crepe gown and veil for a full year and day after the death occurred. “In many cases it was intended to shield mourners from the wider world,” writes Lindsey Palka at The Toast, “since a woman wearing a three foot black veil would be treated with deference and gentility in a public place” (in a sickly ironic turn, the chemicals used to produce this attire were poisonous, often causing illness, or even death for those who so reverently wore them).

For all its potholes and opportunities for flagrant calamity, social media is relatively equalizing: One need not be a Dickensian heiress to alert the world — and to intermittently remind them — that her mother has died, and she feels shitty about that. And because our social media accounts are Frankensteinian creatures of our own idiosyncratic fashioning, we shape them, daily, according to whatever purposes suit our present needs or motivations. When my mother died, these platforms offered me two tenuously competing applications. I could narrate my grief at length, seeking solace through verbosity, and yet, simultaneously, careful word choice — after all, if I was preoccupied with the language of pain, I was less attuned to the afflictions it visited upon me. Transient moments spent puzzling over vocabulary supplied a physiological reprieve, my brain fleetingly fixated on an adjacent and trivial task.

Katherine Florio Vorona in 2014.

Or, if the prospect of any social engagement was torturous, be it in the flesh or across digital scapes, I could briefly mention that the day felt especially difficult, and I simply couldn’t rise to meet it. Nearly 17 months later, I still call on each of these options as it seems necessary. But now and then, when I’m blinking back tears in the wine aisle at Safeway — some clichés have earned their keep — or when the Moana soundtrack transforms a workout into an hour of cardio sobbing, I wish I had a black diamond spinning above my head like an oversize Sims character, so that I might broadcast my threadbare emotional bandwidth to the offline world, too.

In the swamp dark of mourning, we ought not be tasked with barbed explanations of our grief-based impulses in any context: “I’m sorry that I keep bailing on plans; I’m too depressed to go out” or “Apologies for the five-week delay in responding to your email, but I am literally living inside of a blanket cocoon, crying into my cat.” Still, an evermore digitized world compels us to perpetually account for ourselves: It transforms, with evermore vividness, into an incorporeal coworking space where we offer proof of life to friends and, to potential employers, résumés in the form of droll but insightful responses to cultural and political detritus. As we become habituated to living with our hands on our keyboards, absence from social media suddenly seems like neglect. The responsibility is illusory — we do not owe the world narratives of pain — and yet I can’t seem to shake it. Whether I am tip-tapping through a roving, woebegone Twitter thread or implicitly asking permission to log off for the day — because I write for the internet, it increasingly feels as if I am beholden to it — I am always here because I no longer believe I possess the luxury of indefinite departure. Although crumpled with sorrow, the pricking sense that I ought to explain why, suddenly, I have become a humdrum Twitter entity agitates my sense of professional obligation.

As my mother’s prognosis grew more bleak and I struggled to maintain my quotidien routine, I fretted over the tight tether yoking all of my relationships — friendly, yes, but also writerly — to my consistent online presence. With an online announcement, I could eschew judgment if I stopped pitching stories for a few months, or simply failed to produce a steady stream of observations and pithy remarks — not that I am especially adept at the latter anyway. My writing life is implacably tied to my social media accounts: I’m frequently offered paid writing work through Twitter, and I’ve met editors through online introductions. And frankly, if I were to disappear without a word, I’m not confident that I could maintain the modest following I’ve cultivated. Mulling over my digital presence in the wake of my mother’s death disgusted me: I castigated myself for shallowness and rank ambition when my focus ought to have been fully elsewhere. But I could not deny my material reality, which marched sternly on, with its bills and rent payments, and a checking account entirely reliant upon freelance labor. I thought about every Thomas Hardy novel I had read, in which cruel fate inevitably wields its knife when the birds are chirping. Whatever my predilections, social media had to become a component of my grieving practices.

But to suggest that I never want to speak of my mother would be a bald-faced lie. I merely prefer doing so on my own terms, and behind the safeguarding curtain of my Twitter account, where my avatar is statically placid and will not betray my disheveled melancholy. And when I begin to post about her, it can take formidable effort to cease.

There’s probably little mystery to this impulse. From the months preceding her death until now, just over one year later, I am consumed by a nexus of memory and grief. I do not think exclusively of my mother, but she persists as something more than a recollection or idea: She’s become a foundational presence upon which other thoughts layer like paper. I don’t mind — in fact, I prefer it, because I have become attached to the futile, but no less ardent project of ensuring her immortality. If I am thinking of Mom, she cannot be entirely gone. If I am tweeting about her, or posting photos on Instagram, as I am wont to do on the 29th of every month, I am supplying the ether with digital relics, paradoxically preserving her by commemorating her loss.

Tweeting about Mom supplies an illusion of narrative control — I am nothing if not the most emotional variety of type A — and coddles my yen to navigate the wild ungovernability of life and death, as if I could do much of anything to influence either. Parsing the details of my mother’s life, and arranging them in an order of sorts, one that is readable to others and myself, has become my sole recourse when, seemingly, my agency has flown in every other respect. I compose post after post about her — her adorable idiosyncrasies, mundane memories of her googling recipes with her reading specs nestled into the slope of her nose — because I do not want her to die, even though she is already dead.

If I am thinking of Mom, she cannot be entirely gone. If I am tweeting about her, or posting photos on Instagram, as I am wont to do on the 29th of every month, I am supplying the ether with digital relics, paradoxically preserving her by commemorating her loss.

These yearnings are by no means an anomaly. Many of my friends have and are grappling with the loss of a parent by sharing brief narratives and photos — and I am always warmed by their willing vulnerability. Social media, particularly Twitter, is at its best when we summon one another’s kindest inclinations, and I have both witnessed and been the fortunate recipient of tender empathy and loving attentions over these past 17 months. Yet I sometimes wrestle with sheepishness when I consider the widening berth between her death and this day, where I am still living — and still inclined to launch into freewheeling anecdotes, or dreary musings on mortality.

R – L: Rachel and her mom, Kathy in 2004, 2015, and in the late 1980s.

These are fairly unregimented recipes for wading through grief. But social media companies, Facebook in particular, have sought to create mechanisms that mitigate the unanticipated barbs that accompany death in an increasingly digitized world. In the midst of funeral preparations, penning an obituary, and wading through my own shock and melancholy, the thought that I could instantly alert hundreds of people that my mother had died was a surprising relief. But there are additional measures that a bereaved family could take to safeguard themselves against social media’s programmatic callousness. Profile memorialization, which freezes the Facebook account of a deceased person so they no longer show up as a friend to add or as someone to wish a happy birthday, exists for precisely this purpose. “We’ve heard in research that people closest to the loved one often are experiencing so much grief that the last thing they want to do is call up the deceased person’s friends and share the news and relive the trauma all over again,” said Facebook memorialization product manager Alice Ely.

But although tech companies thrive on the prevailing thesis that all human behavior can be systemized, mourning resists such a logic. My sisters and I alerted Facebook friends to Mom’s death, but we haven’t taken any steps to memorialize her page — which, until her obituary was posted online, was her solitary digital footprint — and I don’t know that we will. For my part, I’ve avoided starting the process because I still balk at tasks that reify Mom’s absence. But grief will always insist that we acknowledge it, somehow, some way: On her birthday, October 3rd, Facebook suggested that I wish her many happy returns, and that hollow, as boundless within me as it is without, ached anew.

It’s true: I could eliminate this particular torment if I were to do the damn thing — memorialize Mom’s page and be done with it — but I’m reluctant to embark on a process that seems akin to catching a drop of water in a deluge. The digital detritus that comprises us amasses into a jumbled, endless archive of life and death. There will always be the errant photo dredged up on TimeHop, or a Facebook “memory,” unrequested, hearkening back to an afternoon drinking coffee with Mom at the kitchen table, or, for that matter, this writing assignment that I willingly pitched, necessitating sustained intellectual intimacy with the ruthless conundrum of digital life after death. I open my umbrella in the downpour; a gust of water rips it from me like a shred of cloth.

Moreover, the perennial drawback to any online space is its fundamental incoherence: You’re often sifting through the dross in search of meaningful resonance. Perhaps this is the dark underbelly to my grief-tweet compulsion — it’s a game of emotional whack-a-mole, the classic case of a lab rat rapping a bar, only to be intermittently rewarded with a treat. Sometimes mourning before a vast and obscure crowd can be liberating and fulfilling, other times, it’s a lonely enterprise. Like people, venues cannot be what we require on command, at any moment. A venue that takes its shape and tone from the people inhabiting it surely cannot. There is no blame to parcel out here; these are merely the circumstances of feeling sad in a world that cannot always accommodate you.

Sometimes, however, that lack of accommodation is pernicious. I have yet to delete my Facebook account, but as I read with increasing disgust about the company’s practice of issuing user data to corporations I am evermore disinclined to patronize the platform, even though it was the only one my mother used. Ely notes that Facebook now offers the option of appointing a Legacy Contact to manage a deceased person’s page, but this step must be taken before the death occurs. Mom enjoyed posting photos here and there, but when she was dying of ovarian cancer she — and we, her husband and three daughters — simply did not possess the wherewithal to discuss the afterlife of her minimal digital presence. Though, perhaps others should learn from our neglect in this domain. If you plan to remain on Facebook in hopes that they correct their bevy of infringements on privacy, Ely emphasizes that selecting a Legacy Contact, or at least memorializing a page — after doing so it would read “Remembering [David Bowie]” — protects it from “attacks.” These days, however, said attacks seems to be coming from inside the house.

***

According to Katherine Hatch, a former grief and trauma psychotherapist at the Wendt Center for Loss and Healing and owner of Grounded Grief Therapy, a grief-focused therapy practice, mourning gathers force with the passing of time: “I often see grief becoming more intense down the road,” Hatch told me via email. “This is something that I don’t think people realize; it takes a ton of time to relearn the world without this person in it and for people to internalize that this death has actually happened. Feeling worse down the road doesn’t mean necessarily that someone is getting worse or moving backwards. It is often a sign that the grief process is moving through someone in a healthy way.”

I was relieved to read Hatch’s assessment: I’ve endured this year, yes — but the increasingly vicious awareness of my mother’s absence has ground against me like sandpaper, an agitating abrasion that, in its persistence, has scraped me to rawness. “There is no fixing grief,” as Hatch says. There is no way to reign it, temper it, or predict it either.

Perhaps, then, I am flailing; it often seems that way. Or perhaps there is a more productive bend. Hatch has noticed in her bereaved clients a range of usage when it comes to grieving on social media. “Some … engage with it; others find it terrible. Those who struggle with it voice their dismay at content that can feel trite and oversimplified,” she observed. But then, “Others find it useful to foster a continued bond that is both personal and shared with their community to keep the person present. Some use it as a way to continue to narrate their story. Some use it as a platform and as a way to search for some meaning within their loss.”

And when social media discourse seems so tied up in disaffection — we now warn our followers prior to posting an “earnest tweet,” as if any content that is not slathered in irony is unpalatable and downright embarrassing — illuminating our grief, and the demands it makes of us, could be a useful byproduct of the desire to express our pain in a public way.

Because I work online, and, in the process, have nurtured friendships here — many as dear to me as those initiated IRL — it has followed that I grieve online, too. And I am grateful for the potential it offers, even as I ultimately find it insufficient. Although the boundaries between my online and offline relationships are dwindling, a meaningful exchange on Twitter will always — at least in my case — a distracted enterprise, one in which I am resisting the pressure to respond to some cultural event in my wheelhouse or fretting over some announcement that has triggered my impostor complex. And ultimately, I will find myself longing for physical engagement — a tight squeeze or a cozy nestle on the couch — and if I am talking to a friend on Twitter, it is because they cannot be here with me now. Hatch would likely be unsurprised by this assessment. “I do not feel social media replaces the healing potential of compassionate human physical presence in the face of suffering,” she stressed. “I do not think online communities of support are an equal stand-in for in-person community.”

At the conclusion of my mother’s memorial service, I stood idly near the podium as people milled about, all of us flush with adrenaline and the awkward solemnity begot by such a charged gathering. I had delivered one of the eulogies, my hardest writing assignment to date, and now, softly jostled by the crush of bodies, my damp and weary eyes settled on whatever was before me. After a few moments passed, I discerned the face of my high school best friend, who I see rarely, and who is as perpetually offline as I am on, although our intimacy persists in the way that girlish affection does. My mother had been something of a confidante to her, and they had loved each other. Suddenly, she was standing before me: IRL. I choked out her name, and we embraced, all hot faces and rivulets of tears and years melting away like a dewy fog.

I probably tweeted about this reunion at some point. I don’t precisely recall.

Rachel Vorona Cote is a writer living in Takoma Park, MD. Her first book, TOO MUCH: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today, is forthcoming from Grand Central Publishing. You can find her on Twitter here.

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Editor: Krista Stevens
Fact-checker: Samantha Schuyler
Copy editor: Jacob Gross