Grief in the Age of Social Media

Last week I lost my nineteen year old cousin, Casey.

I — thankfully — found out when I received a call from my mother, early Thursday morning. She left me a shaky voicemail, the kind of horrifying, short, “call me back” messages that just tells you something is awful something is wrong. I called her back as soon as I checked it, fearing the worst. We had a tearful, awful conversation as she broke the news. At first I didn’t really get what she was saying. “Casey? Like Rob and Irene’s Casey?” My mom tearfully recounted what happened — black ice, trucks, the highway. A terrible accident, senseless, the wrong place at the wrong time. A fucking tragedy. Before she hung up, she gave me a sad, scared, “I love you, Mel.” 

A couple hours later, another cousin, Casey’s older sister, made the announcement on Facebook. She set up a crowdsharing campaign to help cover the funeral costs, which I shared. Another cousin saw my share.

Oh my god this is terrible

She hadn’t heard the news until seeing my Facebook share. What a terrible fucking way to find out. She was probably just scanning her Facebook feed, early for her on the West Coast, when she stumbled on my post. No warning, no phone call, just a shitty Facebook post.

That’s the reality of being a digital native today. News breaks fast. There are no secrets on social media. Facebook’s algorithms are designed to show you what they think you want to see. If a friend of yours keeps being tagged in posts, if you visit their Facebook wall, if you engage with those posts, clearly something important is up — so clearly you should see it.

For a week, my Facebook became a shrine to the collective grief of Casey’s friends, schoolmates, our family, and our family friends. Every time I looked at it, another post tagging Casey showed in my feed. Every time I would maybe start to think about something other than her death, I’d end up back on my Facebook tab or I’d be browsing on my phone and suddenly, there would be another gut-wrenching post about how much Casey meant to someone. I’m still seeing straggling posts.

What does it mean to grieve in an era of social media? Is it a burden, a constant reminder of pain, or a blessing to get to see just how loved she was? Does collective grieving make it any easier? Was it right that I was sitting there, absorbing someone else’s grief to help sooth my own? Was it an invasion of privacy? Should we just assume all digital spaces are public? I battled with all of these feelings and all of these thoughts but I just couldn’t look away, and I couldn’t avoid it without avoiding Facebook entirely.

After a solid week of social barrage, I’m still not sure what to think.

Casey was a really fucking cool kid. She’d been accepted into the Disney College Program, and was going to study animation. Out of my huge extended family, she was the only cousin I had who was like me. She was really into anime and cosplaying and conventions. We shared a mutual love of Steven Universe. If we’d been closer in age, I think we would have been great friends. She was fun, and vibrant, and so fucking young. It’s not fair that she’s gone and I am so, so angry. She was so loved. At the end of her wake, I heard one of the folks from the funeral home estimate that some 700 people had attended, waiting for hours in the freezing cold weather to cram themselves into the packed building so they could say goodbye and pay their respects. At her funeral the next day, the procession was so long we completely stopped traffic in two separate towns. It required a police escort. For someone so young, she’d touched so many people’s lives.

RIP Casey. You will be sorely missed.

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