I learned of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School today as many of my fellow Americans did. Just through the door from a toddler gym class with my daughter, I scrolled through my Facebook feed to see a flood of posts like this:
“Deeply saddened and shocked. I have no words.”
“My heart goes out to the families.”
Nearly my entire feed – filled with friends and contacts from around the world – was posting about the same event.
Several years ago, I might have been confused but this isn’t the first horrible event I’ve learned about in this way. Like many of us, I’ve become somewhat accustomed to hearing such news first through social networking venues. I respond by immediately checking trusted news sources or calling a loved one. Social media has a unique way of bringing us back to so many original habits and behaviors.
As the day progressed, the steady flow of Sandy Hook statuses continued. Most statuses focused on the sheer sadness, grief, and immeasurable loss associated with losing so many precious lives.
The sentiments expressed through social media mirror many of the stages of grief initially discussed by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross. As people moved from disbelief and shock, expressions of anger related to this event began to pop up on my feed. Angry political outbursts and frustrations with the world at large were voiced. While it seems impossible to reach acceptance of such loss, people’s sentiments have also transformed into a sense of individual thankfulness and gratitude for their own loved ones.
Today, this has been captured by the thousands of posts from parents promising to hold their own children a little closer.
Social Media as a Grief Narrative
Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites can serve as the world’s barometer for emotion. They can also be valid vehicles for grief. It’s not uncommon for people to desire to commune in response to the anxiety, despair, fear, and sadness elicited by tragedies.
Previous generations rushed to the homes of neighbors and churches after learning of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Many Americans today would have sought solace from the warm glow of a screen. The comparison isn’t intended to suggest a superiority of digital media over in-person comfort. Rather, it’s intended to illustrate that social media has expanded – not dramatically altered – the needs experienced by a nation in mourning.
Research also suggests that social media can positively contribute to the grieving process. Status updates, tweets, and blogs based on tragedies serve as communal grief narratives. Through telling and retelling stories, feelings, and interpretations of trauma, our minds and our society slowly heal.
Unique from typical grief narratives, social media posts often engage interactions through replies and comments. These posts can provide a much-needed connection to others who are also trying to understand. Tragedies elicit a need for relational anchors in our lives. We seek these anchors to secure what feels to be an unsettlingly unbalanced world. As mentioned in a recent article by Levitt, social media can be commended for facilitating a more open expression of grief for many people.
Whether etched in a condolence card, on a sign at a candlelight vigil, or in a Facebook post, grief remains a highly personalized and individual human expression. The stages of grief were described by Kübler-Ross as a series of ups and downs that began with shock or denial and ended with acceptance. As discussed by Psych Central’s John Grohol, there are now as nearly as many theories on grief as there are people who have experienced it.
Facebook, blogs, and social media hold positive potential to support a nation’s and a world’s need to cope with the immense tragedies of today and our future. As Höttges writes, sharing grief through social media can “reverse the unsharability of pain.” It can realign the poster or writer with the world.
There are no ways, no methods, and certainly no media that can allow any of us to “get over” the tragic loss of life experienced in Sandy Hook Elementary School. Talking about pain, grief, and mourning as a community is simply one way to attempt to realign our world.
Höttges, B. (2009). Blogging the pain: Grief in the time of the Internet. Gender Forum. Retrieved from http://www.genderforum.org/index.php?id=240.