Social media today creates new spaces where the topics of death, loss and mourning can be more public.
I lost my grandmother on Jan 1, 2019.
I was fortunate enough to have the chance to hold her hand and say my last goodbye in person, as I watched her final moments before she passed peacefully in the ward at Ng Teng Fong Hospital.
Even with my grandmother’s passing, which I’d like to think and believe was peaceful, I still felt like I needed closure from the death. And for some reason, turning to Instagram and being able to write my final words to her on social media was a coping mechanism for me.
Death is a universal experience, yet it is a subject that naturally feels out of place on social media; particularly in the digital space where most people would painstakingly curate the most appealing versions of themselves through their Facebook profiles or Instagram feeds.
I’ve always wondered why something so personal like dealing with the grief over the loss of a loved one made me, and many other youths, turn to a public social media platform like Instagram as an outlet.
The personal loss of my beloved grandmother inspired me to pursue research for my undergraduate thesis in the effects of grieving on social media, particularly Instagram; and whether doing so facilitates the healing process for the bereaved.
Here are four reasons why some Singaporean youths are using Instagram to grieve.
Recounting the grief experience several times can be emotionally draining for the bereaved individual.
Instagram lets people exert control over their feelings of grief in a digital environment. People can announce the death to a wide audience in just one post, or express their emotions on the loss at the same time to anyone who would like to provide comfort.
22-year-old student Kim, who recalled the passing of her late aunt, said: “I didn’t want to appear and say, ‘Hey! I’m upset and I want to talk about it.’ At that point when I received the news, I didn’t know who I felt comfortable enough to talk to and how to approach someone to start talking about it.
“To be able to put it out there on my social media, my friends will be able to understand that I’m going through this loss, and acknowledge that without feeling obligated to return a reply.”
Youths explained that being able to write personally meaningful tributes and saying their final goodbyes to the deceased on Instagram hastened their ability to come to terms with their loss and connect with the deceased. Being able to memorialise the dead was especially important for those who did not have the opportunity to express their last words given how sudden death might be, making it difficult for the bereaved to move on.
Samantha, 22, was on an overseas undergraduate student exchange programme when her father passed away due to an accident. For her, Instagram acted as an avenue for her to say her final goodbye to her father and to “show the world” what her father meant to her.
She said: “The death was really overwhelming and I didn’t get a chance to say my last words to him [my father]. Through posting it on Instagram, I got to say my final goodbye – the things that I never got to say to him before he passed.”
Just like how significant milestones in a person’s life are celebrated on Instagram (e.g. graduation, weddings, or birthdays), experiencing the death of a loved one is no different.
For Cassandra, this came in the form of posting throwback photos with her grandmother on her death anniversary as a tribute.
The 23-year-old communications undergraduate expressed that it gave her “a certain sense of comfort” in honouring her grandmother on the digital space, and that it translated to a sense of social connectedness with the deceased.
Grieving with a broader community allows the bereaved to draw strength from knowing that they are not alone.
Krystal, 21, recounted how posting about her father’s battle with cancer allowed her to make sense of the trauma that she felt, and helped her to reconnect with some of her old friends whom she had not spoken in a while, who came alongside her to grieve.
She said: “I posted a photo of my dad, and I said that his two years of battle with cancer has ended and thankfully he’s not suffering anymore. Many people texted me, some even called to check on how I was doing. From this, our friendships reconnected.”
Death, being an inevitable constant, grips us in various ways. Once limited to the physical space, the yearning, longing and sorrow accompanied by thoughts and memories of the deceased has extended itself to social media platforms in today’s digital age.
There may not be Wi-Fi up there in heaven for our loved ones to read what we write online, but posting in this digital space has become our way of coping and keeping our loved one’s legacy alive.
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