A few days ago, the NY Times published this article: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/15/fashion/mourning-in-the-age-of-facebook.html?pagewanted=1&sq=mourning%20facebook&st=cse&scp=1
It was an interesting take on the impact of facebook, and digital media in general, on mourning a loss. It raised some interesting points. It also left me unsettled.
The article spoke of the idea of “secular shiva.” While I’m all about embracing new ideas, reinventing ritual, and owning ancient traditions, the descriptions didn’t sit right. The gathering described sounded just like, well, a shiva. The only real difference being a location other than the home–which, frankly, has long been a tradition for the meal immediately following the funeral. The other differences cited (being for Jews and non-Jews, the mourner having a space to remember the deceased, and there being no religious ritual) don’t really fully hold true. The shiva that exists in the mind of the author isn’t the shiva that many of us know–the one that is still so relevant for the mourners–those directly connected to the deceased and those who are connected less directly, or who are friends of the ones who are grieving.
But what really bothered me about the article went deeper. While touching on the matters of announcing a death via mass email and how to respond to an announcement on facebook, I felt the article was lacking in mentioning what a powerful tool digital social networking can be in the mourning itself. Over the past few years, I’ve unfortunately seen a number of deaths mourned on facebook. And, particularly in the tragic deaths of young people, I’ve seen facebook become an important tool for those remembering. From groups being formed to share memories, to poignant messages left on the wall of the one who passed for months following the loss…the digital age has offered us a unique tool through which those far and those near can offer support to those who have suffered loss–and to cope with their own grief.
The questions of etiquette that are important, to me, are not those of whether to post on a wall or send a private message…they are those that run deeper. What do you do with a profile of someone who is no longer alive? Is it ever ok to defriend the profile of someone who is no longer living? And the ever important question of how we can use the digital age in order to mourn.
I can’t help but remember the death of Jewish singer/song writer Debbie Friedman, about a year ago. I was not close with Debbie, but we had met several times. Somewhat ironically, my most powerful memory of her was the last time I saw her–at the funeral of a young man whose death was painfully felt by many. Among the hundreds of people gathered graveside, the line to the shovel snaked around several times, she caught my eye. We looked at each other, and she gave a big grin–and opened her arms to me in an embrace that we both needed. When she passed, it was odd for me to remember her so vividly in another moment of loss–but it also gave me comfort. So many of us have such powerful memories of Debbie.
But what moves me further is the ability of us all to remember her using the technology at our fingers. Thousands of us were able to digitally attend her funeral. Was it the same as being there? Of course not. But it enabled us to share in that powerful moment of mourning. We were also able to share the moment across geography. To see pictures and videos of her in so may settings. To hear so many stories about who she was. For so many of us, the fact that we had and were able to use these tools helped us to remember. To honor memory. To exist as part of a global community.
That, to me, is what is important about mourning in a digital age. It’s not about reclaiming and slightly altering a tradition. It’s not about how to announce a loss or how to respond. It’s about how we mourn. It’s about the experience itself.