Not too long ago, I attended a presentation on grieving in a social-media world. Like so many things with social media, there is good news and bad news. The good news is that social media provides new and creative ways for grieving people to connect and to memorialize. These connections can reduce feelings of isolation and provide affirmation and helpful information in powerful ways. The bad news is that, especially for young people, news of a death can travel so fast—sometimes faster than good, accurate information—and this also lends to learning about a death without a real person present for comfort and companionship. There is also a temptation for insensitivity and even meanness on social media that exceeds that which most would express in person, and this can happen even to grieving people.
Social media at its best is a complement and support to person-in-physical-presence relationships rather than a distraction to or substitute for other important ways of relating.
With school days in the rearview mirror, I don’t take many notes nowadays, but sometimes a statement or phrase calls out to be written down. At one point during the social media and grief presentation, the speaker quoted a teen in her research who said, “You can’t unfriend the dead.” This statement would have made no sense for many of us in our teen days, but it makes sense now.
Facebook is a major social media platform used by over two billion users worldwide. In the world of Facebook, we send and receive “friend requests” to and from those with whom we’d like to connect on a regular basis. Our Facebook friends see what we choose to share in words and pictures and we do the same for them. Mostly this works for us, but sometimes a Facebook friendship becomes more of a stress than a pleasure. Unlike on Facebook, in other parts of our lives we are generally friends “in spots.” We share work things with coworkers, religious (or nonreligious) things with our religious (or nonreligious) friends, sports things with our sports friends, political things with our political friends, and so on (and pictures of our grandchildren with everyone J).
On Facebook, however, most of the time there is no such screening, so our friends in one spot get exposed to other sides of us—sides that we often edit in one-to-one in-person conversations. And this exposure can be a stress. When the burden of stress with a Facebook friend becomes too much, we can decide to “unfriend” that person. Unfriended, both of us no longer sees what the other chooses to share among friends.
Grief world, unlike Facebook world, is different, and this teen stated something profound: You can’t unfriend the dead.
Why not, we might ask, especially when we are in dark, painful places in our grieving. Why can’t we cut ties with those we have lost and move on with living? If a continued relationship persistently provides more pain and stress than comfort, why not delete that relationship in whole and free ourselves to a better life? Why can’t we “unfriend the dead?”
Because of ghosts. Or more specifically, because of the wisdom in the concept of ghosts.
The concept of ghosts seems universal across cultures. The idea is that people are changed by dying but are not totally absent from the living. Though dead, they are still present and continue to interact with the living. Too often, thoughts of ghosts are wrapped up in our fears and anxieties about the mysteries of death, whatever may (or may not) come after we die, and the fundamental uncontrollable nature of death. In a ghost-filled world, ghosts can scare us, haunt us, or even possess us. For many who take a more scientific view, its memories that can do the same—scare, haunt, or even possess. Yet however we view ghosts—literally, metaphorically, or otherwise—there is wisdom here. The dead don’t disappear and they don’t fully go away. Their images linger, their echoes reverberate, and their presence and influence persists.
For the dead we have loved and continue to love, we are grateful for these “ghosts.” We yearn for their whole presence and gradually settle and make do with any affirmations of their continued place in our lives. These reminders are bittersweet—painful yet comforting—and over time the balance can be to more comfort than pain, pain that changes but does not fully go away.
There are also those dead with whom our relationship was quite complicated—full of both pain and comfort in the living. More rarely and tragically, sometimes the living with them was all pain, or at least mostly so. Here we would certainly like to “unfriend the dead,” and yet that option is still not available to us. All lives who have touched us deeply become a part of us. We cannot undo what was done or erase what has happened. There is possibility and real hope for lessening pain and burden in these relationships, and that healing comes at a price when we engage the dead in processes of justice and sometimes forgiveness. Such healing is costly and is not accessible through avoidance.
The dead remain part of our lives always, about that we have no choice. We do have choices, however, about the parts they play in our lives. They can haunt, frighten, burden or possess, but they can also comfort, inspire, support and teach. We don’t get to “unfriend” the dead, but we do have the opportunity to reconcile or make our peace with them.
As this is written, I think back to ten years ago on this day when we said good-bye to my mother. I remember someone asking me what we were going to do without her. Without much thought, I responded that she was too big a presence to fully go away. Thank goodness for that.
Center for Good Mourning