I didn’t have Twitter when one of my childhood friends passed away in 2004. Or when my grandmother passed away in 2007. But anyone who follows me on Twitter now has heard about them. They’ve also heard about the loss of my 17-year-old dog Maximus, my dear 33-year-old friend Erica, even the boyfriend of one of my best friends (who was also a friend of mine). Sometimes it’s on the anniversaries of when I lost them; sometimes when I see or hear something that I know they would have loved or appreciated; other times, it’s just because I find myself in a situation jokingly saying “whatsa matter, you don’t like it?” as my grandmother used to say when someone ate an enormous helping of her food but couldn’t manage that last bite.
So why Twitter, of all places? Sometimes, I know, it can feel like it’s solely a place where our president throws tantrums about being denied the ownership of Greenland surrounded by millions of weirdos there to harass and argue with strangers (amid the occasional jokes about feral hogs, chonky cats for adoption and pep talks from comedian Josh Gondelman). But so often, before it existed, I felt like I was trapped in my head when I was grieving, and avoiding grieving publicly to friends and family for a duration that I deemed too long, because it might frustrate or annoy them.
Dr. M. Katherine Shear from the Center for Complicated Grief suggests that social media can be a helpful place for sharing grief because close friends can disappoint you during such an emotionally sensitive time. “They don’t show up enough, or they don’t say the right thing,” she explained. “People actually lose friendships over them not responding properly to grief, so this could actually be a way of protecting friendship and getting what you need in an easier way.”
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I’m not the only one who uses Twitter this way. Recently, my timeline was populated with several people who had just lost a parent or a friend, as well as others acknowledging someone important to them who had passed years ago. Writer Amanda Deibert did a Twitter prompt asking followers for stories about someone they loved who was no longer alive and had close to a thousand responses within two hours. Clips on Twitter from an emotional discussion about grief between Anderson Cooper and Stephen Colbert have been shared widely and elicited others to respond and share their own pain.
Grief is messy and Twitter is a messy outlet, so maybe that’s why the connection happens.
For author Keah Brown, a friend of mine, tweeting about the loss of her grandmother and uncle from several years ago isn’t about making herself feel better. “Grief is an everyday thing, especially when you really loved the person. Tweeting about it, just letting it out, and saying it out loud, I’m keeping them with me and acknowledging that it’s not easy.”
Actor Diedrich Bader found much of the same when he tweeted about the five-year anniversary of his mother’s passing by sharing a favorite sculpture she had created. There was an overwhelming response of appreciation for her work, as well as kind words about his loss and the grief he still feels and wanted to express. Bader told me, “I just want to make sure the people who follow me really know who I am, that I’m not limited to the parts that I play or politics I spout. I’m a fully grounded human being and grief is part of that.”
Both Brown and Bader touched on something about expressions of grief on social media, which has become heavily curated by users as part of the seeming obsession that so many of us have to appear happy all the time. Even while we all know those façades are not real, they feel increasingly difficult to shed, and can make the process of grieving even more difficult.
But posts about grief can end up creating community, not alienating it, as television host and chef Alejandra Ramos has also found. As a public person for her work, Alejandra has a natural inclination to share, so, when facing the devastating loss of her dog, Hudson, in January, she did. “Pet death exists in a very gray area in our society,” she said. “It lacks the rituals of a human death: There’s no funeral, no one is coming by with a casserole, but it’s incredibly painful! It was one of the hardest things I ever had to go through and I had to share that.” And she found that, by sharing about the death of her dog, others who had gone through the same thing related and responded — which turned out to be essential, since she didn’t have close friends or family who had experienced that specific type of loss.
She just recently adopted a new dog, and many people who had seen her past posts about Hudson messaged her to say they were thrilled that she had decided to bring a new pet into her life. “It was really cool to see people who were supportive in the past and now celebrating my new joy because that too is part of the grieving process!” she said. “A community I created by putting my grief out there let them show up for me in a different way. It was amazing.”
When my dog had to be put to sleep this year, I too found great comfort in the dog lovers of Twitter, since I was utterly devastated and the rest of my family was so lost in their own grief that it was hard to support one another. Revealing my personal pain on Twitter served as a way to express it more clearly — there is, after all, a character limit, even if you thread posts — even if no one responded.
And, in posting those feelings or memories online, sometimes you end up finding humor or joy in the midst of your sadness. Your wounds will never really heal; as Bader told me, “you never get over it, you just get on with it.” And sometimes that means live tweeting the pain, and getting a heart-hands GIF from a stranger in the ether.