Grief on social media and reaching closure through disclosure

A former schoolmate lost her father late last year. His struggle was swift and brutal; just two months and his heart failed him.

A week after his funeral, she made a heartbreaking post on social media, expressing her futile yearning to hear his keys turn in the lock once more. I could almost feel her heartache as I read her words even though we have grown distant. For her, it must have been a means of catharsis.

Her way of expressing grief is not uncommon these days in my social circle. A former colleague of mine documented her mother's cancer fight on Facebook and Instagram a couple of years back, and I have seen numerous posts on Facebook paying tribute to loved ones who had passed away. I guess it is natural since many in my generation live our lives on social media.

But it also got me wondering what made me so averse to the idea four years ago. At 22, I lost my mother to cancer and told a grand total of 10 friends. Over the years, more found out when they asked how my parents were doing.

But it had seemed at the time of her death ridiculous to me to pour out my soul to 700 Facebook friends, most of whom I had not spoken to in a decade and whose words of condolence would have brought me little comfort. I thought it might look like a cry for attention, and that a topic so intimate would be lost in a stream of complaints and raw emotions.

Perhaps it was also because I recalled this reminder of hers so starkly: "I want people to come for me". I took that as her wanting the visitors to her wake to be people who really knew her as a person, and not as a wife or mother.

But as more of my peers turned to social media to express their grief, it made me see the value in being open about the death of someone close to you. One superficial benefit for me would be avoiding the awkward conversations that I have had, with more to come, I'm sure, with friends whom I'd neglected to inform in the flurry of funeral preparations, mostly because they were overseas on student exchanges.

Since then, there has just been no good moment to say "by the way, did I tell you my mum passed away", especially as it happened years ago, and I knew bringing it up would also leave me choked up with emotion again. So I've lived with the principle of not telling unless asked.

But on a more objective note, I think that precisely because of the detached nature of social media, it would have allowed me to express what I really felt without worrying that I would burst into tears.

When asked in person, I mostly just said "I'm fine" with a slight smile, the most I could muster while keeping my emotions in check.

I never spoke about how I missed my best confidante, the one who never failed to listen to me squeal in excitement about a good grade, rant about people who annoyed me, or give a blow-by-blow account of my day.

Details about my mother being a master baker, about her having the gentlest of voices, about how she fought a tough year-long battle with stomach cancer with strength and grace, these were also pushed to the recesses of my mind only to surface in dreams, at lonely times and sometimes, to my surprise, after watching sad movies, especially Japanese ones.

Perhaps turning to social media to mourn is a way to pay tribute to a person you treasure, respect and love, and to achieve some form of closure through disclosure - in your own time and without physical scrutiny from others. Penning down one's thoughts as a way to confront and come to terms with situations has been around for centuries, so with traditional diaries a thing of the past for many and digital ones the new normal, social media is where people turn to now.

Whether it be distant acquaintances or close friends who offer words of sympathy and encouragement, experts like Dr George Bonanno, a clinical psychologist and grief expert at Columbia University, say the kind of collective mourning that takes place on Facebook is much like how large communities used to grieve together and, as it becomes more entrenched, can comfort the bereaved.

A study of Facebook memorial groups created for adolescents killed in car crashes by clinical psychologist Elaine Kasket from Regent's University London, published in 2012, found that 77 per cent addressed the deceased directly, which shows that some people used social media posts to say their last goodbyes.

For the record, I do not regret handling my grief the way I did. Keeping it private was to me, at that point, a way to keep my mother's memory special, and I believe anyone who has met her would already have known all those wonderful things about her.

But seeing more of my friends turn to social media to mourn has given me a new perspective.

As many who have lost a loved one would agree, death changes a person.

Being by my mother's side during her last year, accompanying her for appointments at the National Cancer Centre Singapore and watching her hopes get lifted and then dashed every few months by the wretched disease, has changed me in many ways.

It has given me courage to pursue the things I love, to live without regrets, to make the extra effort to keep in touch with people who matter.

It also taught me resilience, a trait I saw in my brother as he became the main point of contact during the wake and gave a eulogy without breaking down. I also found it in myself, which proved a surprise as I had, since kindergarten, prayed every night that my parents would live a long life because I was afraid of losing them.

It also showed me that my extended family had our back.

Death, though tragic, teaches us the best lesson on life.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 19, 2017, with the headline 'Grief on social media and reaching closure through disclosure'. Print Edition | Subscribe