SCENARIO: a father dies late on a Sunday evening in a horrific accident in the Eastern Cape. In the midnight hours, the family scrambles to get hold of someone who can deliver the tragic news in person to his youngest daughter in the Western Cape.
In the early hours of Monday, an article about the accident does the rounds on Facebook. Though he isn’t mentioned by name, the wreck of his distinctive car gives it away. His daughter sees it before the family friend can convey the news in person. Nobody should learn of a family member’s death in such a callous way, yet it happens.
Many of us aren’t lucky enough to die at an old age surrounded by our loved ones. Death arrives in an instant, traumatically, by one’s own hand or another’s, in any manner of accident that happens at an inopportune time and place, making it incredibly difficult to get hold of loved ones before word spreads online.
Our country is vast and crime and accident rates are high. All the more reason to wait. Give it time. First, wait for the family to be notified, then give them time to get over the initial shock. Most families have members in far-flung places across the globe. Give them enough time to contact relatives living or travelling overseas. How many times has it happened that a person steps off a long-haul flight and checks Facebook — purely out of habit — only to be confronted with the shocking news of a loved one’s death?
I generally dislike sentences that start with “in the old days”, but back in the day word of a death spread face to face or via the telephone. And people, being people, also got the facts wrong and indulged in speculation. However, their crude speculations didn’t appear in black on white for everyone to see and comment on. At their earliest convenience, the family would confirm a death by placing a notice in the local paper with details of a memorial service. This practice is fast falling out of favour as younger generations use social media to get the word out.
How you choose to notify others of a loved one’s departure, whether digitally or in print, is your own business. If you go the digital route, the depth and frequency of what you choose to share is entirely up to you. Provided it is your nearest, your spouse, parent or child you are posting about. And that’s where the catch lies. Problems arise when acquaintances, friends (often with the best of intentions) and strangers race to share news that isn’t really theirs to share. This is especially true when the circumstances of a death are unexpected, unclear or shocking in nature.
Social media gives everyone a voice, which has led to a proliferation of unknown “celebrities”, unqualified “journalists” and self-taught legal eagles.
The sidewalk of our collective digital consciousness is lined with soapboxes spewing unsolicited advice and theories.
We need to wise up about death etiquette in the digital era, to be reminded that the distress and grief of losing a loved one — unlike the memes and news snippets we flit through — are real and devastating. Also, the grim reality of sharing your deepest pain on social media is that someone will respond by clicking the heart or care emoji, only to laugh at a horse that bucks at its own fart three seconds later.
Stop, think; stop, wait
Social media can and should be a source of comfort and support during a time of grief. It definitely should not make an already difficult time more trying. Here are a few things to consider when addressing a death online.
Let the family lead: Wait for the family or its representative to make the first post. It cuts deeply to see confirmation of a loved one’s death online, even if you know the person is dead. It just hammers the finality of it home. Allow them to break the ice. By waiting, you’re giving them time to ensure everyone is notified in the kindest possible way. No matter how badly you want to voice your disbelief and deep appreciation for the person, put the family’s feelings above your own. Some people share very little of their personal life on social media. Surely, their death should not be the exception? If a family entirely refrains from posting about a death, follow suit and share your condolences directly with them.
Fact check: Stick to the facts shared by the family. If you don’t know what happened, it’s likely you weren’t that close to the person to begin with. Or perhaps nobody knows. Even the police and newspapers regularly get the facts wrong, so be sure of what you share and do not speculate. When the circumstances of a death are murky, and especially when it is considered news, nothing can be worse for the grief-stricken than to read the flat-footed assumptions and couch Columbo theories of people who can’t distinguish between their favourite true crime channel and someone’s real trauma. Just know that the loved ones are also desperate for details of the deceased’s last moments; they’re probably scouring every bit of online news for clues, and that includes the comments section. Respect their feelings, even if you don’t know them.
Are you helping? Choose your words and timing carefully. Before you post, consider how your message will be received by family and close friends. Words of love and support will always be a comfort. Posting an article depicting the death scene will cause undue hurt and offence. Not posting anything in the public domain is a respectable option.
Stop, read, reconsider: This should apply to all social media posts but it’s especially true when the post is death-related. Consider your emotional state at the time of writing. Should you wait until you’ve calmed down before clicking the send button? Also, do your words serve your feelings, or those of the family?
Can the curiosity: We live in an era of emotional mass-engagement and oversharing. It doesn’t help that our appetite for macabre detail has been so meticulously massaged by the mainstream media. Does it really matter what Matthew Perry had in his bloodstream when his head dipped beneath the water? I’m using a celebrity example, but this goes for any incident where the circumstances aren’t apparent. Of course, we are all curious. Everyone wants to know how a person died, but try sitting on your hands until the impulse to ask has passed. When an RIP post appears on social media, you don’t have to read far down the comments before a bluntly worded “how did she die?” pops up. Consider that the answer is sometimes too traumatising or mixed-up to put into words.
It's not about you: Your post about someone’s death isn’t the time or place to mention your cat’s botched sterilisation or that you have car trouble (you know, to top it all). Focus on the person who passed and on consoling the family. Do not make the post about yourself. Your day will come. Unless social media implodes completely, we will all be on the receiving end of an RIP post in due time.
To tag or not to tag: A grey area best governed by “too much”. It’s quite common to tag someone in a post after their death — either with or without a photo — in memory of good times shared. Nothing wrong with that. If you continue to tag the person on a regular basis it could become upsetting. As comforting as it is to know your loved one lives on in the memory of others, excessive tagging can feel intrusive.
If this all seems obvious, why the need to spell it out? Because every example of insensitive or clueless behaviour described above is based on something I, my family or friends have experienced online.
It’s not that surprising, really, considering we live in a society that doesn’t prepare us for death. Not on how to feel, nor how to react. And social media places our ignorance in the spotlight.
♦ VWB ♦
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