To be able to see someone’s face from across the world is still truly remarkable, and nowhere is this more true than in a state of mourning. It wasn’t very long ago that the idea of video calls in a time of grief was impossible. I think back to when my dad was in the Navy in the early 50s, stationed in Okinawa. One day, he got a letter from home informing him that his oldest sister had died suddenly. She had a heart condition, and because of that she never wed. She was in her early 40s, and had moved past the years of her silent sadness to become a pillar of strength for her family, raising nieces and nephews—and her youngest, rowdiest brother—like her own. But then, her heart quit on her.
And there was nothing my dad could do. By the time the letter reached him, Jean had been buried over 7000 miles away. There was an ocean and half a continent between him and his family’s sadness, and he was alone in his raging grief. His shipmates held a funeral, gathering together their brotherly kindness and collected whiskey. But the distance made it unreal, as if he was unable to truly say goodbye.
And that’s the way it was for most of human history. It was only recently that jets could take us anywhere around the world within a day. But there are times when this is still an impossibility. If you’re in the Navy, you can’t just leave. Work might make it too difficult. Expenses are also a very real issue. And for many older adults, travel may be impossible, a particular cruelty when you feel that you are losing friends or family across the country or around the world.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Social media and other communication technologies have made it possible to express sorrow, to join in the mourning, and even to visit over video chat. They’ve changed the way we say goodbye. For caregivers and family members of older adults, helping them use technology and social media to connect to distant loved one could be a saving grace in a time of grief.
How Social Media Brings Us Together
It’s easy to roll your eyes when talking about social media and mourning. The former is often portrayed as an act of exhibitionism, while mourning is private and intense. The height of this contradiction seemed to be the “funeral selfie” craze, which was widely mocked.
But should it have been? Why, after all, do we go to wakes, but to remind ourselves of the person we loved, to share in our grief and reminisce with the living, and to memorialize not just the life that passed, but the one wild one we still have. We say “I was there,” because we loved the person who has left. Saying “I loved this person,” and sharing your last moment with them, isn’t tacky. It’s just another way to mourn in our modern world.
And that’s what social media can do. It can create a larger circle of mourning, with people who knew the deceased and those who didn’t. As an example: I was reluctant to share on Facebook the obituary I had written for my father, thinking it tacky or self-serving or ostentatious. But my siblings wanted me to, and I realized they were right
We received messages of support from people we hadn’t heard from in years, people who we knew, or who knew my dad, but didn’t know he had passed. They were able to share their own memories, and to join into a bigger community. Even people who didn’t know him chimed in, and said that they now felt they were a small part of his life. And that meant the world to us.
We were especially touched by old friends who said they checked in and learned of his passing, or were directed to it by younger relatives who helped them. It was like the old days, with jokes being told and stories being exaggerated, even though no one was in the same room.
But in a way, we really were.
Mourning on Social Media, From a Distance
If you or your older loved one live far away from a friend or family member who has passed away, there are a few ways you can help them to be there in spirit, and be a part of things even from a distance.
- Facebook threads: The relatives of the lost loved one will be very happy to hear stories or thoughts about the person they’re mourning. You can, of course, send a private note, but a group discussion, or a long thread, can be more like a conversation. Stories can bounce off each other or be retold, memories can be hashed out, jokes can be remembered. It can be joyous. And these threads can also help your loved one connect with other friends or family members who may be distant. If your loved one isn’t Facebook-savvy, help them navigate. Your biggest contribution could be to simply help them overcome any reluctance toward using Facebook
- Video calls: FaceTime, Skype, Airtime, and other video chat services are minor miracles. To be able to connect with an old friend or relative and talk about your sadness is amazing, to see each other’s tears and know you aren’t alone. You can also help your loved one set up group video chats, where you can talk about what the deceased meant to you, and reminisce over old times.
- Streamed services: We all remember huge shared funerals, like JFK or Princess Diana, but these days any wake or funeral can be streamed live on multiple platforms for anyone who can’t make it. Find out if this is a possibility, and help your loved one watch. The tech might be tricky, but it could also be as easy as opening a new tab in your browser. This will allow them to feel like they’re there paying respects and, if possible, they could even interact with people through video at the wake or reception.
- Chat and video networks: Sometimes, depending on the depth or rawness of the feelings, a person may need to talk to someone at strange times. That’s why people are establishing private social networks as a 24/7 support group. These are private online spaces where people can send messages or video chat or text chat at all hours of the day or night. It’s like a comprehensive social network, but only for those with an invite.
Social media can be big and exhibitionist or small and private. It can bring in the world or a few select friends to virtually gather out of the rain. It can be an incredible way for older adults who are unable to travel to connect with people during a time of grief—it’s already shown to be beneficial for seniors who are suffering isolation. And isolation can be magnified by loss. Social media can ease this.
Social media can’t erase the miles. It won’t fold up the continent into a bridge, swallowing your sadness along the way. But it can erase that crushing sense of distance that makes loss both more painful and less real. It can make it easier to mourn. For older adults, for whom distance can make a friend or loved one’s passing seem like a silently receding ship, it can provide a long relationship a sense of closure. It might be media, but it is fully social.
At Institute on Aging, we provide help for older adults, their families, and their caregivers to navigate the challenges and exciting possibilities of aging. Connect with us today to learn more.