Posted on: September 18, 2019 at 8:51 pm
Last updated: October 16, 2020 at 1:14 pm

Social media can be a great and horrible way to share your news. For most, its main purpose is to update friends, family, and followers on interesting vacation, job positions, and yummy-looking meals. People share links to news outlets on topics they are passionate about. Perhaps the best kind of news is personal like births, graduations, or weddings. In a rather depressing age where social media feeds are teeming with articles about the world burning down, good news and pictures of happy friends are always welcome.

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However, there is another kind of personal news, that perhaps shouldn’t be as shared so quickly: deaths.

A Harmful Facebook Post

June 9, 2012. 8:20 AM

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Taya Dunn Johnson’s 36-year-old husband was declared dead in a hospital outside Washington, D.C.

One hour later, the grieving widow struggled to make the required calls to immediate family members, doctors to arrange death certificates and autopsies, funeral homes to pick up her husband, and other vital, time-sensitive things. The problem was her phone was ringing and text-alerting nonstop.

At 9:47 AM, she was speaking with a police officer when an incoming phone call with an unknown number came through. Johnson usually avoids unknown callers but felt she should answer considering the circumstances.

“He’s dead??? Oh my G-d. Who’s with you? Are you OK? Why am I reading this on Facebook? Taya, what the heck is going on?” cried the caller.

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Johnson was baffled. She hadn’t gone on Facebook since the previous day, and especially not since her husband’s death.

“I’ll call you back,” she said and hung up. 

She quickly called her best friend and told her to search for a Facebook post about the news. If she found anything, she was to contact the poster and demand they delete it. Johnson still hadn’t reached many important people like her husband’s best friend, his godsister, their godson’s parents, and so many others that deserved to hear the news properly, not accidentally through a Facebook notification!

“Why would someone post it to Facebook SO FAST?” wrote Johnson in a post on Upworthy. “While I can in no way speak for the entire planet, I certainly feel qualified to propose some suggestions — or, dare I say, rules — for social media grieving.” [1]

This digital age has changed how we communicate with others, and since these changes are relatively new, we lack norms and unspoken rules.

The Hierarchy of Grief

For those who had experienced some sort of loss, it’s easier to understand this concept. Death impacts people differently and this often depends on how close they were to the deceased. Hierarchy, as a definition, is “a classification of things according to relative importance or inclusiveness,” and it fits in these situations.

No matter how a person dies, of old age, after a long illness, in a sudden accident, a natural disaster, or who they are, an elderly person, an adult in their prime, a child, there is always an effect. It’s impossible to know how every person will be affected or how many. It’s a gut punch, no matter how the death came about. There’s the conflict of facing mortality and the tearing of the heart that comes with losing someone beloved.

Death is something universally acknowledged as sad, and it’s natural and proper for people to show support for the family and friends of the deceased. Before the digital age, these wishes were shown through phone calls, voicemails, letters, flowers from those who live far away, and food parcels, hugs, and tears from those who lived close to the grieving family.

With social media, these methods have not stopped, but they are accompanied by tributes in the form of social media posts with pictures, poems, and eulogies. These are meant to show concern and support for the family, and express love for the deceased.

However, these messages may do more harm than good for the family and friends they are trying to help. This is an age where news is instant, and the posts with the freshest news get the most views. Hearing about death is shocking and painful, and writing about it on social media is a way to alleviate some of that grief.

But wait. Don’t click post yet.

Remember there is a hierarchy of grief. The immediate family has matters to take care of following the death. There are friends and family who deserve to hear the news in person, or at least over the phone. Then the family faces their own overwhelming grief. 

Before posting, consider your relationship to the deceased, and wait. It seems like a minor thing, but it could mean worlds to the family whose social media accounts are the last thing on their minds. They will most likely post about the death, and they should be the ones to give the news.

Johnson formed her version of the hierarchy:

“If the person is married, let the spouse post first.

“If the person is “young” and single, let the partner, parents, or siblings post first.

“If the person is “old” and single, let the children post first.

“If you can’t identify the family/inner circle of the person, you probably shouldn’t be posting at all.”

Keep in mind that this is not a competition of “who’s grieving the most” It’s about giving the family the space they need after a death.

Johnson began receiving RIP posts within the hour of her husband’s death, and this shocked people who knew the family and threw them into a panic, calling Johnson and not getting through since she was busy trying to deal with more pressing matters. She ended up asking a friend to post a status on her behalf to calm those ridden with an undeserved panic.

“Your love and expressions of support are appreciated and needed,” she wrote, “but they can also be ill-timed and create unintended additional stress.”

Death often creates the darkest moment of a person’s life. It may take a few days for the fog of shock and horror to lift. Until then, mourners won’t be able to fully appreciate prayers and well-wishes; they are trying to survive the gnawing pain in their hearts.

In difficult times, it’s important to be kind, but sometimes it’s more important to be wise. 

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Sarah Schafer
Founder of The Creative Palate
Sarah is a baker, cook, author, and blogger living in Toronto. She believes that food is the best method of healing and a classic way of bringing people together. In her spare time, Sarah does yoga, reads cookbooks, writes stories, and finds ways to make any type of food in her blender. Her blog The Creative Palate shares the nutrition and imagination of her recipes for others embarking on their journey to wellbeing.

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