When news broke that Prince had died at the age of 57, friends, fans, and collaborators flocked to social media to grieve the musical icon. Within 24 hours, his name was mentioned more than 12 million times on Twitter alone. Some people eulogized the artist as a source of personal influence or joy. Others scolded companies for posting #RIPs that doubled as brand promotion. Still, others questioned whether a public outpour of emotion from people who didn’t really know Prince was more attention-grabbing than respectful.
Whether you’re coping with the loss of your pop idol or a close relative, “there’s no one appropriate way to deal with grief, and that troubles people,” says Jocelyn DeGroot, PhD, a professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville who studies digital communications surrounding death. “We have rituals and scripts, but often, people just don’t know what to do.” That’s true both online and off, but by making the process more public than ever, social media creates more opportunities for us to judge the way other people grieve and, possibly, butt heads.
In other ways, social media can amplify the positive effects of communal healing, even mediate the intense feelings of isolation that often follow a loss (science shows that you actually can die of a broken heart.) “It gives grievers a way to notify a wide group without having to make repeated, painful calls; receive support from many they might not otherwise hear from; and have their feelings validated by others who’ve had similar experiences,” says Pamela Rutledge, PhD, director of the Media Psychology Research Center in Nevada.
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Being able to observe the way people talk about loss online makes people intensely uncomfortable, mainly because it’s so new, says DeGroot. But in the long run, more conversations about death will reduce our discomfort around the topic. Here, psychologists and people who have mourned online share what they wish more people knew about expressing grief and condolences in the digital age.
Reach out; it’s almost always appreciated.
When Jessica, 26, lost her father suddenly to a ski accident two years ago, she was moved by the influx of messages and posts she received—and not just from close friends. “I was blown away by how many people crawled out of the woodwork to give their condolences or offer a nice anecdote about my dad, including people I had totally lost touch with or never got along with super well,” she says.
If you’re on the fence about whether to message someone who’s in mourning, “I would say you should almost always reach out,” she advises, even if your relationship with the deceased or the bereaved was only superficial. Jessica understands why people hesitate—no doubt, it’s awkward. But your words don’t need to be life-changing, she assures. “I’d been in that position before. How do you send something heartfelt but not cliché? It’s almost impossible, to be honest, and I didn’t expect that from anyone. I just wanted to know people were thinking about me and my family.”
“There is never anything wrong with offering condolences,” agrees Jen Golbeck, PhD, director of the Social Intelligence Lab at the University of Maryland. Relatives, especially parents, often want to hear stories about their lost loved ones, but if you weren’t close, “It’s always nice to just say ‘I’m sorry for your loss,'” she says.
If you’re the one in mourning, ask for what you want.
People usually want to help but don’t know how, since everyone’s needs are different, says DeGroot, so guide them. “One thing I’ve seen work positively is when people are direct with their communication,” she says. “They might post, ‘Yes, our son has died, but please, please, please keep saying his name. When you see us, I want to hear his stories.’ “Or, if it’s too painful when people respond to your posts, make that clear.” (Grief can be healthy—but it changes your brain, too. These steps ensure a strong recovery.)
Meanwhile, when your network offers assistance, feel free to take them up on it, whether that means meeting up to reminisce or tasking them with picking up groceries. If you’re worried that vague offers to lend a hand (“let me know if there’s anything I can do”) are insincere, try posting a public ask, like “I could really use help from those of you who live nearby.” No one will feel like they’ve been put on the spot, and those who respond will be genuinely happy to be put to work.
If you offer to help, be sure you follow through.
Of course, some grievers will be too shy or bereft to ask for what they need, which is why after Chloe’s mother passed away, she appreciated when people took it upon themselves to provide help, rather than waiting for her to make the first move. Close friends showed up with home-cooked meals, and those who were not members of her inner circle sent links to meaningful articles that helped them through their own losses. “It can even be posting a comment that says ‘I’ll shoot you a text next week to see how you’re doing’—and then actually following up and offering to take the person out for coffee,” says Chloe.
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Avoid trite sayings about death.
Though well intentioned, phrases like “She’s in a better place,” “Only the good die young,” and “This sadness will pass” can come across as dismissive. Chloe, 29, heard these words a lot when her mother died of cancer last year. She knew her friends just wanted to cheer her up, but she couldn’t help thinking, “Are you saying she is in a better place without those who loved her?!”
It’s difficult to find something meaningful to say to someone in grief, especially when you’ve seen dozens of versions of “I’m sorry for your loss” on their Facebook wall already. But one-liners like these can unintentionally imply that there’s an upside to all this or that a mourner is not handling her anguish exactly as she should. “You’re not going to give a grieving person a pep talk that brightens their day,” says DeGroot. “So just tell them you’re sorry.” (If you really messed things up, here are 10 powerful ways to apologize.)
“I know how you feel” is another line that usually doesn’t land as intended. “Because you don’t know how they feel,” says DeGroot. “Even if you lost your mom, this person’s relationship with their mom is different.” That’s not to say that you can’t offer someone unique comfort if you’ve gone through a similar loss—just make sure to do so while acknowledging the griever’s individual experience, says DeGroot. The deceased person was singular to them, and it’s important to honor that. “You might say, ‘I also lost my mom; if you ever want to talk about that situation, I’m here for you,’ ” DeGroot suggests.
Think about why you’re posting—and where.
“People post about tragedies for every reason under the sun,” says Golbeck. “Looking for social support is certainly one of them, and social media is a good way to get that. But some people just want to rant, others want attention, and others may be posting inappropriately simply because they are so full of grief that they aren’t being their best selves.”
It’s not fair to decide who should or shouldn’t post about a death, says DeGroot. And yet, people do make those judgments—especially about eulogies given by those who weren’t very close to the deceased. If you think the family and friends in mourning would appreciate a communal show of compassion, or you need an outlet for own grief, there’s nothing wrong with posting a supportive message publicly, assures Golbeck. But if you’re unsure whether it’s your place to comment about a death on your profile, there are other options. You can send a private message to the deceased’s family or post directly to their account if it’s been memorialized. (Say these 7 simple things every day to boost your bond with loved ones.)
The key, she says, is to be aware of your motivation: Is your intent to break the news first, and if so, are you the right person to be doing so? Are you using language that honors the deceased or sensationalizes their death? Are you posting to a more controlled community, like Facebook, or do you want to take your message public on Twitter?