Public Grief and Private Grief

How we express grief is a deeply personal thing. For some people, it is an intensely private emotion which they choose to keep that way. Think back to the pictures of women with a high public profile wearing a long black veil at a funeral. The veil has two functions, one is respect, but the other is to put a barrier between their private grief and the outside world.

Social media has changed how we express everything. We share happiness at the birth of our children, we express sadness at the loss of our jobs, we explode outrage at our politicians, it is the place where we say how we feel. Inevitably then, it is a place where people choose to express grief.

The private becomes public

When a public figure dies, within moments of the news social media lights up with responses. Other public figures will express their condolences in 140 characters, keen to be in the throng, keen to be relevant and to show empathy and a human side.

It is a natural reaction, and it is not necessarily self-serving. But it takes a private event into the public domain in a way that used to be unthinkable.

When news bulletins are released, there is often the caveat that the ‘family looks for privacy in this time’.Before social media we would never have had to say this or be reminded of the private nature of grief.

The Thai football team

Although this event had a happy ending, in the aftermath the Thai government imposed a 30-day moratorium on news agencies covering the boys. Not surprisingly they sought to avoid taking an immensely personal trauma public. For the mental health of the boys concerned they gained time and space to process their ordeal and come to terms with their new reality.

There can be huge support

Taking a traumatic event to social media can be both cathartic and supportive. If you post a great sadness you don’t have to tell everyone, you don’t have to deal with the awkwardness of the distant friend who didn’t know. You don’t have to keep dealing with the same conversation. You can get information out to large numbers of people quickly and efficiently.

But once it is out there, it is out there, and it is nearly impossible to return to privacy. Even a post with a plea for privacy, ironic as it is, will fail.

Luckily the response from most people is an outpouring of support and caring. (Although it is fair to question how much support there is in 140 characters.) But it also exposes those who have suffered the loss to the rationalization of others who, no matter how well-intentioned they are, may try to find meaning for the loss. The situation is heavy with emotional landmines.

No one would advocate a return to Victorian morality and repression, but social media is a double-edged sword. It must be wielded with care, especially around traumatic events.