Redefining The Grieving Process In The Digital Age

Read Bruce Feiler's New York Times piece "Mourning in a Digital Age"

After a loved one dies, it's becoming more common to offer and receive condolences through a Facebook post or an email. New York Times contributor Bruce Feiler discusses the new customs that are evolving to guide the grieving process in the digital age.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

LYNN NEARY, HOST:

Over the past six months, writer Bruce Feiler has experienced what he calls a season of lost: friends lost, siblings, spouses, even a teenage child. And Nate(ph) finally realized that he didn't know how to properly pay his respects. It's becoming more and more common to offer condolences through Facebook or email.

In The New York Times, he writes: Grieving has been largely guided by religious communities. Today, with families dispersed and the pace of life feeling quickened, these elaborate, carefully staged mourning rituals are less and less common. Old customs no longer apply, yet new ones have yet to materialize.

If this is your story, how has the Internet changed the way you mourn? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Bruce Feiler is a bestselling author and contributor to The New York Times. He joins us from our New York bureau. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

BRUCE FEILER: Great to be - always great to be on TALK OF THE NATION, Lynn. Nice to be with you.

NEARY: And let me begin by saying I'm very sorry at the losses that prompted your article. You've been going through, as you said, a sort of season of mourning, I guess.

FEILER: And these things came from all over, and the circumstances were all different. Some were unexpected. Some were long losses. And the particular, I would say, kind of awkwardness that I found myself in is that I live in New York. I'm in a circle of friends. And when my friends lost their relatives, what often happened - or happens - is that that person lived far away, right, so that the friend would go off to California or Georgia or Pennsylvania or Tennessee.

And there would be a funeral, some sort of a familiar ritual far away, and then the friend would return to our social circle, and then we had to struggle, well, what do we do? And that's really what prompted, what really became sort of the heart of this piece I wrote in my New York Times column, which is a kind of secular shiva, is what we called it, after the Jewish shiva ritual, which is we gathered 12, 15 people two or three different times for different grievers, gathered them together in a friend's house, not the home of the griever, and then kind of had this social gathering. Sometimes the griever would speak, sometimes the griever would not. And at one point someone said, oh, this is a secular shiva. We felt like we were at the beginning, kind of the birth pangs of a new tradition, and that's what prompted me to kind of explore these issues that we were all facing.

NEARY: But, you know, what's also very interesting about what you wrote is the way in which, you know, social media, you know, digital culture is changing our mourning rituals. For instance, you write about getting a mass email announcing a death, and that you didn't really know how to respond to that.

FEILER: Well, what do you do? So you get these mass emails. And one thing - as you know, I was - I'm a cancer survivor myself, and I went through these struggles when I was sick, and I'm particularly sensitive to them. And what happens is you become overwhelmed. So, you know, email, Facebook - these types of things are a great way of notifying large numbers of people. My father finally passed, for an example, after a long illness.

But you tend to get these things, and there are these mass emails, and what do you do? Is it OK to send an email response? Do you send it privately? Are you supposed to then get out a note card and write a note card response? And so I sought out some people who were in this space, and I was a little surprised what I heard, but people said to me consistently. If the griever feels comfortable sending an email, you should feel comfortable sending - or it's OK to feel comfortable to send an email in response. Just don't hit reply all because you don't want to be in this situation of sending it suddenly to 250 people.

NEARY: Right, right. Is there a sense that you can send a message of condolence via email, but that you should follow it up with something more personal than that? Or are you saying that the people you consulted said that as we're - as our culture is changing, that it is really more acceptable now to use email for that purpose?

FEILER: Well, I think this hits on a different issue, which – a new and different issue, which it depends on your relationship with the person. Now, one thing that I heard consistently that I didn't write about in this piece is that these types of private mourning experiences no longer are just confined to private life. They now have entered the workplace. OK? So one of the challenges of these mass email lists or Facebook friend lists is that they tend to straddle the line between friends and colleagues and family as well.

So I think that the answer to that is what's your relationship with the person. If it's the person down the hallway who might just be explaining why he or she is not at work for the next four, five days, then I think that an email makes a lot of sense. I often feel when it's a friend, like, I feel like I need to respond because if I sit down and write a letter, I mean, realistically, I'm not going to do it that night. It may take four or five days. It might be another week before the person reads it. And I feel, like, they may think that I'm avoiding them when, in fact, I'm trying to be more formal. And, in fact, I'm creating this new problem, which is the lack of an instantaneous response.

NEARY: Because that's - yeah, because we are used to instantaneous responses for everything now that if somebody doesn't hear from you, you're right, they could possibly take it the wrong way.

FEILER: And I think Facebook, you know, raises a whole different set of questions, right, because on the - same thing with Facebook, we are now used to - a lot of people, when they are sick, use Facebook. And there are some other websites also - CaringBridge is a great example. CarePages is another example. And people use these sites because it's, again, it's an efficient way to disseminate a lot of information very quickly. But the problem is, is then people grow to expect that there are going to be these constant updates.

And again, when I was talking to people about the Facebook etiquette here, I also learned something I hadn't really thought about. A woman who was in the hospice business advised me you've got to be very careful. Let's just say you and I are married and - or I'll use myself. I'm doing the dying here - and you are chronicling your experience as the spouse through my terminal illness. And what I was advised was, you got to be very careful to just write about your own experiences as the griever and don't tiptoe onto my ability to tell my story as the sick person.

So you, Lynn, in this scenario I've created, my spouse, you shouldn't talk about how I'm feeling. You should just talk about how you're feeling. Again, something I haven't even thought about and something that really - it's not analogous to the kind of etiquette situations we face in real life. It's a whole new set of etiquette challenges that then be created by what are these social media opportunities, in effect.

NEARY: We're talking with Bruce Feiler of The New York Times about his piece "Mourning in a Digital Age." We're going to go to Kendra, and Kendra is calling from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Hi, Kendra.

KENDRA: Hi. I'm the director of GriefNet. For 18 years, we've been running grief support groups on the Internet by email.

FEILER: Excellent.

KENDRA: And so we see a lot of ways that people want to honor people who have died. We're affiliated with a virtual memorial website called Virtual Memorials. And that's one good way is to put up a memorial for your loved one and let other people visit, submit photographs, comments. We also - people in the support groups will often talk about the best way to honor someone, a friend, how to help a friend who has lost someone. The simplest and really the only thing anyone need to say is I'm so sorry, and that comforts the grieving person just as much as a long letter full of memories.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for your call, Kendra.

KENDRA: You're welcome.

NEARY: That's an interesting example of how people are using the Internet and later on, I think, using social media in a different way for the purposes of mourning. I have an email here I like to read. It says: I think the role of the Internet has made mourning and paying respects far less personal. For some, I think it might be a tool for those living very far away. But when I lost my mother, it made paying respects too easy for those who were not close enough to the family to attend the funeral services. It's almost as if I feel if you aren't keeping in touch with the deceased during their life, then you aren't entitled the information of their death. This is from Lindsey in Columbus, Ohio. What's your take on that, Bruce?

FEILER: Well, it's interesting. I mean, I - there is a challenge that these social networks face. Anybody who is on Facebook who's ever had a birthday on Facebook knows what it's like to get many, many, sometimes dozens and dozens of half-baked, completely platitudinous, happy birthday, Bruce, from people you don't know or half know or haven't seen in 30 years. And that has a very little emotion attached to it. And I think that there is something about some of these social networks where people can give very sort of empty kind of condolences.

At the same time, most people I know who have been through the death of a loved one have taken comfort in the fact that maybe it is people that they barely know. Maybe it is people who didn't - as this emailer just wrote - keep in touch with the person during their life, who maybe are reminded of them, maybe have a memory, and maybe share something on one of those social networks.

So I think that, basically, the social networks are actually extremely good for the partial or somewhat distant friend. What I also believe - and this is what, is really at the heart of this piece I wrote - none of this is a replacement for the comfort of being with people that you love. And if you are in the inner circle, if you are a close friend, there is something very powerful about uniting in a physical way, especially because most of our communication today is so virtual.

So these gatherings that we had, we went to the griever and we said, look, why don't you give us a - first of all, would you like to? They all said, yes. Give us a list by invitation only, 12 or 15 people. We'll invite them over. We then gathered. Then we said to the griever, would you like the opportunity to speak about the deceased? And it splits. One woman talked about her mom. And for 45 minutes, 10 of us sat around. She talked about her mom, how she met her father, how they dated, her optimistic outlook on life. It was like watching this vintage movie and it was an incredibly memorable night.

Another person did not. It was a brother. It was a little bit more painful and unexpected. And she said, you know what? I'm not comfortable. But she had brought a DVD of pictures and songs from her brother's life, and she gave us that so that we could all know a little bit of her brother whom we didn't know. So I think, for the distant friends, these things work. But for the close friends, there's still nothing that replaces the idea of being with people that you love.

NEARY: Bruce Feiler is a New York Times contributor and you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. We're going to now to Renee(ph), who is Clovis, California. Hi, Renee.

RENEE: Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I just wanted to say that I agree with your speaker, that each person has to do what they feel comfortable with. And for me, personally, if I received a condolence or a Facebook post, I will be very put off by that, and nor would I extend condolences via email or on Facebook. I would, you know, put a note in the mail. And what's even more interesting is that I was recently prompted to actually close down my Facebook page because a co-worker lost a child, a small child, and not very many people in the office knew about it, and she wanted it that way. She didn't want the information shared.

And someone made a public post on her Facebook page, you know, extending their condolences. And, of course, their intentions were good but they breached her privacy, you know, by airing that information for all to see when she didn't want it there. And, of course, you know, she didn't, you know, have her privacy settings, you know, they way that it should've been. But it just kind of made me realize that all of these social platforms and these social networks, they're really fabulous for getting, you know, tidbits of information and keeping up with things. But there's a lot of privacy issues there. It just makes me so very uncomfortable, and I am younger. I'm only 31 and I'm a mom and, you know, all of my friends are on Facebook, but the whole idea just makes me very uncomfortable.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for your call, Renee.

RENEE: I will take your comments off the air. Thank you.

NEARY: OK, thanks. And before I ask you to respond, I want to read an email because it's saying something different, I think, from what Renee just said. This is from Joanie in Westminster, Colorado: I lost my husband seven years ago in a climbing accident, and at the time I lived in France. Having moved back to the States, I find that Facebook allows for a transcultural sharing of this loss. Every year, on the anniversary of his death, I post his photo and just remember him. It is nice to see people interact and post messages. I think it is a great grief outlet that allow us to express loss and sadness in a comfortable, familiar environment.

Sadly, I have also had friends on my Facebook who have died. Their families have left their Facebook pages active, and sometimes it's comforting to talk to them via their pages. Somehow, the death does not seem as brutal and final. So social media can be a healing bridge for many of us dealing with the loss of a loved one.

And I think, Bruce, what these two calls represent is on some level, it's an individual person's own comfort level with their interaction with the Internet or with social media that really decides how they deal with this in terms of their own mourning or grief.

FEILER: The number one lesson I learned working on this story and for my own experience losing friends and nearly dying myself was that you need to meet the sick person or the griever where they are. And that's the issue. And where you are, and where the caller was, and where the emailer were are different places, and that's all very fine. I mean, even with this idea of these small gatherings. Just when I think I could say everyone should do these, somebody advised me, you got to be careful. Because if you're an introvert, if that person grieving is an introvert, if four people show up at the front door with four casseroles and a chocolate cake, that's going to be a particular kind of torture for that person.

So I think that you have to respect the privacy issues that we heard, give people the option to share whatever they want if that's what they choose. But the job of the friend of the griever is - as someone told me as I was working on the story was my favorite thing that I heard - you need to be that person's friend. And if that means showing up and, you know, repotting their plants and sweeping their front porch, then show up and do those things.

If that means listening to same story about their loved one for the fifth time, then listen to that same story. And if that means just sitting there quietly on the other end of the phone as they weep, that's what your job is. It's not to impose your own wishes on that person, it's to be where that person is, and be supportive in whatever way they need.

NEARY: Oh, Bruce, thanks so much for joining us today.

FEILER: My pleasure, Lynn.

NEARY: Bruce Feiler is a bestselling author and contributor to The New York Times. He joined us from our New York bureau. There is a link to his piece at our website, npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Tomorrow, we'll take a look at where the Occupy Wall Street movement is now. Please join us for that. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.