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Facebook Sympathy: Offering Old-School Condolences In An Online World

Somewhere between my brain and my keyboard, the sorrowful shout-out seems to get stuck. Grief to me has never been an occasion for public clamoring. (Kate SERBIN/Upworthy)
Somewhere between my brain and my keyboard, the sorrowful shout-out seems to get stuck. Grief to me has never been an occasion for public clamoring. (Kate SERBIN/Upworthy)
This article is more than 4 years old.

A colleague just lost his 93-year-old father. A former student invited friends to join her in mourning her beloved Portuguese water dog. An old pal bade a sad farewell to the Toyota he had driven for almost 17 years. An ex-colleague served up a 1500-word paean to the octogenarian mother in Texas no one outside her immediate circle had met. The encomium included her mom’s prize-winning chili recipe.

I know all this because every day, someone I “know” on Facebook announces a deep and personal loss. I use quotes around that verb because in some cases I have never met these so-called friends. Rather they are virtual acquaintances, friends of friends, friends of relatives, people with whom I share professional or other connections. Even some of the contacts I do (more or less) know are voices from the far, distant past: high school classmates, remote relatives, love interests from long, long ago. And there they are, publicly proclaiming their anguish.

Old-schooled as I am in the procedures of proper etiquette, I often offer a commiserative comment: “Your mom was lucky to have you!” “So sorry about Fido.” “Wow, what a car,” and so forth. Somehow I cannot bring myself to press “like” when the subject is loss.

Somehow I cannot bring myself to press “like” when the subject is loss.

But somewhere between my brain and my keyboard, the sorrowful shout-out seems to get stuck. Grief to me has never been an occasion for public clamoring. In some countries I have visited, including China and Taiwan, families hire professional mourners to dance, pound drums and wail in honor of those departed – sometime for years at a time. New Orleans jazz funerals are loud and raucous – weirdly entertaining, actually. But once the body is in the ground, it’s back to work and enough with the chest-pounding. When did all these people (whom I wouldn’t recognize if we shared an elevator) decide to share their sadness with the entire known world?

For a book I wrote some years ago, I studied American grieving practices. In the 19th century, friends and neighbors came by to view the deceased, typically laid out in the parlor, wearing his or her Sunday finest. Some people made jewelry out of a loved one’s hair. And as photography became accessible, death portraits were not uncommon. Still, but for the obituary in the local newspaper, the pain remained primarily private: All in the extended family, so to speak.

Future historians seeking to determine when we became a culture of coast-to-coast, poor-me sympathy seekers will likely date that development to the end of the last century, when electronic communication began to tighten its grip on our collective crania. “So sorry about your Dad!” read an early generation email in 1992. That one message should have been my tipoff.

Somewhere between my brain and my keyboard, the sorrowful shout-out seems to get stuck. Grief to me has never been an occasion for public clamoring.

Emily Post, whose etiquette guide resided in my family’s library, reminded me always to send hand-written condolence notes, preferably on monogrammed Crane notecards, engraved-not-embossed, and ecru in hue. Even now that Emily has gone modern, conceding that an email message is acceptable upon immediate word of a death, she stresses that an email should be followed with a handwritten note. Ditto, says Emily, for online/social media: Do send that note.

Those same future historians will write many wise treatises on the confessional nature of 21st-century America. We declare our addictions, our weight struggles, our sex habits, our exercise regimes, our creepy eccentricities – well, what don’t we advertise to anyone who will watch, read or listen? So I suppose it is little wonder that grief is a billboard-adventure as well.

Me, I will withstand my family’s withering insistence that I am a blonde, blue-eyed dinosaur, the last living American who buys notecards and postage stamps by the gross. I did send a note about my colleague’s father. And the Portuguese water dog. And the chili-cooking mom. But not the Toyota. He’s on his own for that one.

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Elizabeth Mehren Cognoscenti contributor
Elizabeth Mehren is an author, journalist and Boston University professor.

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