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On expressions of grief in the Age of Social Media

This post was originally shared January 28th on Medium.

Photo – Mike Labrum on Unsplash

This past Sunday in the wake of the news about Kobe Bryant, I had a lot of thoughts. Among them, I was wondering whether or not I should post something on Instagram, and if I did, what would I say?

In the midst of my questions, there flickered an idea. It was one that I’d had before: “If you don’t post, people might not think that you care…” Deep down, I know that this isn’t true. And in the past, I’ve been silent regarding certain events.

But honestly. Those words capture the kind of world we live in. For some reason, a small part of me didn’t want to seem like I was some sort of unfeeling soul.

For a moment, I mulled over the idea that perhaps this presumed need for statements from people — including regular folks like me — is a reality I need to accept. I shared two posts about what happened on Sunday. And although I certainly don’t feel like I was forced, I know that nothing I say will ever be enough.

But earlier today, I opened my Instagram feed, and saw this:

In an instant, I was captivated and comforted by Demetria’s honesty. I agreed with her fully and completely. I began to stop feeling bad about not knowing what to say about Kobe.

A moment later, I learned that people have been upset with another celebrity for not commenting on the tragedy via social media. My curiosity was piqued, so I ventured over to said famous person’s account. (For now, I’ll call the person I’m referring to “J”. Although I didn’t know it until today, J is a friend of the Bryants. )

In the comments section under their latest post, J made their perspective clear. [I’m purposely not going to quote this person. I feel gossipy enough as it is, writing about this incident.] To J, social media is a business tool. Hence, they’ll post about their particular branch of the entertainment industry, and their work in it. But they believe that none of their personal life — including their response to the loss of people who meant a lot to them — is ANY of the public’s business.

The more I saw J graciously dealing with trolls, the more a wave of relief seeped through my soul.

Since late last year, I’ve been reevaluating my relationship with social media. An obvious part of that equation is my “WHY?”. Literally.

Why am I posting something? Is it out of a genuine desire to share, or am I being performative? Or, as some might feel in the shadow of a tragedy, is a post being composed out of a sense of obligation?

Here, I’ll offer a caveat. If you feel the need to memorialize someone, I don’t mind. I think a well-worded tribute can be beautiful. But if you don’t want to share your thoughts on a loved one who has passed away, please know that that’s absolutely, perfectly ok.

As I think of a years-old personal loss that I still haven’t publicly discussed in detail, something about J’s comments set me free, and I hope they do the same for you.

Firstly, I decided to release myself. It’s important to keep things in perspective. Going forward, if something terrible happens, and I don’t feel like commenting on it via social media, I won’t. (And I won’t feel guilty about it, either.) I don’t have to, and my not commenting does not mean that I don’t care.

When words fail us, in this era of free communication, we deserve the freedom to say nothing at all.

Secondly, it does’t matter to me how famous or non-famous you are. Our phones have us literally living in each other’s back pockets. And sometimes, that proximity is a bit too close. Please remember: whether you’re feeling overjoyed, or absolutely horrible — you do not automatically owe strangers pieces of your life. We are not entitled to your intimate details, whether whole, or in fragments.

There was a bit of a presumptuous tone in some of the comments directed at J, and the audacity of them threw me off. If nothing else, I hope that certain people will evolve beyond using folks’ status as “public figures” as an excuse to invade their privacy. “Public figures” are still people, who, like the rest of us, bear the weight of their own humanity. And this burden can be especially overbearing when the unthinkable happens.

In Jesus’ name, have some compassion.

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