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Grieving in the digital age

Man sitting on a bench covering his face

The emotional wrench of losing someone close to you is difficult enough, but lots of things about modern life can make it harder when someone dies. Workplaces may not grant much leave. Schools may struggle to support bereaved pupils. Afraid of saying the wrong thing, friends may opt to say nothing. 

And when family members have different ways of grieving, it can cause tension or concern. Parents might be worried, for example, when a child messages their deceased friend on WhatsApp. Next of kin may remove a dead person’s Instagram and then be startled at the panicked outcry from friends.

Digital legacies are the personal information that stays online, or on electronic devices, for an unknown period after we die. This includes emails, message threads, photographs, videos, search histories, call logs, location data, blogs, and social media profiles. Before Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok, everyday people had small digital footprints, and grieving online wasn’t a widespread phenomenon.

Now, though, we’re informed of deaths online. We find out the details and reach out to other mourners on social media, email, and message apps. Sentimental material like photos may have been stored exclusively digitally, shared on online platforms but never printed out. And more companies are following Facebook’s lead by preserving social media accounts, providing resting places for the online dead.

Is it healthy to grieve online?

We have a lot of misconceptions about grief. Most of us have heard about the “stages of grief” and assume that there is a right and a wrong way to mourn. This is not the case, and the experience of loss can vary spectacularly from person to person. Just as every relationship you have is unique, each bereavement is unique too.

People have always sought to stay connected to loved ones and ancestors gone before. This human instinct is called “continuing bonds”, and the communication technologies of the day have often been used to attempt to reach across death’s divide. 

Using digital methods to stay connected with the dead is nothing new, and because of the huge amount of information that we accumulate online over our lifetimes, the dead – or at least, their digital reflections - “live” in the technology already. We can continue to message them online, or visit their social media profiles, and many people do just that. Using our devices to grieve online is incredibly common.

Because of digital legacies, we carry our lost loved ones with us, in the palms of our hands. Smartphones become portable cemeteries. Sometimes we use them to process the emotions provoked by a loss, and sometimes we escape into CandyCrush or other distractions to forget those feelings. Online channels also serve as a way for grieving people to access resources and support. When a household is stricken with grief and other people are struggling too, these additional 24/7 channels of support and comfort can be hugely valuable.

What do I need to know about grieving online?

Continuing a connection or bond with someone who has died, online or otherwise, is not a sign that something is wrong, or that a grieving person is “in denial”.

Online is not forever. Digital legacies disappear for a variety of reasons, sometimes unexpectedly, and losing them can feel as traumatic as a second loss. Even if you don’t find online material meaningful yourself, resist questioning or challenging the importance of digital legacies for someone else.

People often don’t leave instructions for online material in the event of their deaths. If you’re deciding whether to close down a deceased person’s online accounts or profiles, even if they don’t mean much to you, consider (and ask) if they might be important to someone else in their own grief. A delay may be appropriate to give people a chance to continue to connect in the immediate aftermath of the loss, or to back up memories that they want to keep.

Digital legacies are subject to the terms and conditions of the services that house them, and they usually can’t be passed on like physical possessions. Family often don’t have the rights that they expect, and bereaved people may be surprised and distressed when they’re unable to access or control a loved one’s digital remains. If you want people to access digitally stored information after you are gone, you need to plan ahead. Make a social media will to state your preferences, even though it may not be legally binding. The Digital Legacy Association has material that can help, including step-by-step social media guides.

Finally, even if someone is well supported within their online communities, don’t assume that they wouldn’t also value your physical presence and help. Sit with them and let them talk if they want, listening to them nonjudgmentally. Remember that there are no “shoulds” or “oughts” in grief, online or off. Resources like the Good Grief Trust, Child Bereavement UK, and Marie Curie’s TalkAbout can give you a steer.

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