COLUMN: In age of social media, grieving is complicated


The world that people my age are growing up in is not fit for saying goodbye.

I’ve tossed around this idea before. It’s the over-discussed one that says technology has made life for millennials so convenient now. Social media lets us instantaneously connect or reconnect with people whom we haven’t seen in awhile. Today you’ll never have to wonder what happened to high school friends because you’ll see them getting their first jobs and posting about serious relationships via Facebook. On Snapchat, each day, you’ll watch them go out to parties and pull all-nighters.

But the caveat to this is that sometimes, unfortunately, you’ll also watch them pass away. Sometimes tragedy takes the young. You’ll watch them become memorialized on social media in the wake of an unexpected death.

I’ve seen it happen too much. This past week, my Facebook timeline broke the news of a peer’s death. She was an aspiring model killed by a stray bullet in one of those “wrong place, wrong time” scenarios on the Southside of Chicago. It’s a scenario that, as a Chicagoan, I have seen tragically played out time and time and time again.

And each time it makes me wonder, how does social media play a role in millennial grief?

During my freshman year of college, my friend Kevin also died in a “wrong place, wrong time” shooting in Chicago. This past Saturday made two-and-a-half years since that night. It’s a weird date to mark, but thanks to my Timehop app, I didn’t have to remember it all by myself.

The app sent me a push notification saying that on that day four years ago, Kevin and I had shared an extensive wall-to-wall exchange on Facebook (remember those days?). Receiving that reminder shook me. It was an unexpected reminder of loss; one that was not predicated by an anniversary or triggered by a thought. Instead it was social media, serving as a memory bank to moments I don’t think I was ready to deal with yet.

I don’t think a lot of people in our generation are ready to deal with loss for this exact reason. We were never taught how to say a final goodbye. Text messaging and Skyping and IM have cushioned the blow of final chapters. Social media prevents definite endings.

But then there’s death. It’s an ultimate ending.

For a long time, I remember trying to avoid seeing Kevin’s Facebook page. He was gone. Being on his page would just serve as a reminder that there was not a person behind the screen anymore. I’m not the only millennial who feels this way.

Other people my age have experienced this grief. And based on some statistics, we might all be closer to knowing death than we would like to think. At the end of last month, the USC Dept. of Public Safety said they saw the highest amount of suicide attempts on the campus — 12 reported ones — since the start of fall semester. Death is not just for older people, and young adults sometimes reckon with bereavement as well.

But can you ever truly lose someone when social media is there, preserving their memory?

Divorcing individuals from the technology they inhabit seems nearly impossible now. We use hashtags and Instagram photos to keep memories alive. Tech companies have also tried to help us figure out this situation. Facebook has outlined policies about memorializing accounts. If notified, the company will put “remembering” next to your name on Facebook.

Yet, for millennials, those memories are still there. Logging off does not help. Nor will a hashtag or Facebook status. Experiencing grief as a young adult in the technology age is a path no one wants to go down. We need help.

For a generation of kids who have never had to completely leave a situation behind, we won’t immediately know how to say goodbye in an age of “forever.” Yet, acknowledging that it might be difficult and an additional burden to the grieving process is necessary.

It took me a while to work up the strength to go back and check Kevin’s Facebook profile. In fact, I just went back for the first time this week, right after I saw the news about my other peer. His page now says “remembering.”

So that’s what I’m doing for now, until our generation figures out how to say goodbye. Or figures out how to make social media hurt less.

Maybe one day there will be a clear solution to this; the kinks in technology always seem to work themselves out. But for now, I think understanding how millennials grieve is a discussion that we won’t be saying “goodbye” to for awhile.

After reading “Wait An L.A. Minute” on Tuesdays, join Jordyn Holman in her millennial conversations on Twitter @JordynJournals. She’s a senior studying print and digital journalism.

  • Jon Parssinen

    Jordyn, I’m probably not the first to suggest that you wean yourself off of facebook. If you do not, and continue to get those “remembering” hits, then “social media” problems are you. There may be other sites out there you can do without, freeing yourself from collaborative Internet hassles that bring you little or no satisfaction. Good luck.