To Lose a Friend: The Plight of The Bereaved
Updated: Aug 24, 2020
What it means to grieve in the age of social media
About five years ago, I lost my best friend in a tragic car accident. She had just turned 19 years old. It was my first week of college and my first time living away from home. I felt like I’d abandoned her. She was starting community college in our hometown, and I was going to a four-year university almost two hours away. It was an easy drive, but we knew it would change our dynamic. She even talked about transferring to my school after getting some credits under her belt, since we had a great art program and she wanted to pursue photojournalism. We dreamed of moving to New York together after graduation and living in a classic Brooklyn brownstone. We couldn’t imagine life without each other, and then she was gone, and I was left to live for the both of us, a task I imposed on myself after she died, and one I didn’t feel prepared to handle. The best way I knew to cope with adversity is to write about it, so I did (and still do). I wrote about Shelby a lot in the first year of losing her, to honor her memory and to try and make sense of what happened. To lose a person so suddenly and unexpectedly is like having the ground ripped out from under your feet, leaving you adrift in the universe. You cannot believe it to be true and yet, somewhere in your consciousness, you know that it is. It’s difficult even to fathom the concept of death, the permanent absence of a person you had seen just the weekend before, a person who was alive and well, their face smiling and skin flushed pink with life. Where did they go? How were they gone? Shelby was no ordinary person; that’s what made losing her so much harder. She was some kind of magic — a light in a dark room, an ethereal creature with human neuroses — everybody was drawn to her effortless grace and charm. She brought people together even after her death. She’d just started a new serving job, and co-workers who had only known her a few short weeks attended her funeral. She had already captured their hearts, and they recognized the tragic loss the world had suffered. She was enormously kind, always putting everyone else’s happiness before her own. I would have felt so much more alone in my grief if I hadn’t united with the other friends she left behind, a group of strong-willed young women mourning the loss of another. A few of us got tattoos honoring Shelby. I have her name scrawled on the inside of my right wrist, and another friend got “I miss you” on her arm in Shelby’s handwriting. It was a way to express how much she meant to us and allow her memory to live on as long as we survived her. I only knew the girl for one year, and now her name is permanently etched into my skin.
Not being able to talk to Shelby was one of the hardest parts of losing her. What do you do when you’re grieving the loss of a person, and your instinct is to reach out to them for advice and comfort? I found myself at times briefly forgetting she was dead, and thinking “Shelby would know what to do, I’ll just text her.” It’s like whiplash when you remember that’s no longer possible. But social media gives us a little bit of a loophole. Almost everyone on the planet uses online platforms to communicate, sharing their thoughts and feelings, oftentimes with complete and total strangers. Especially in this new socially-distanced era, it helps one to feel a little less alone in the world. Writing letters to Shelby in my notebook was therapeutic, but to actually post something on her Facebook wall felt a little more real; as if I was proving to myself and others that this person had actually existed and wasn’t just a figment of my imagination. Natalie Pennington’s cleverly titled research study on grief communications, “You Don’t De-Friend the Dead,” focuses on the analysis of grief among college-aged people on social media. She says that between 22%-30% of college students have experienced the death of a family member or friend in the last year (2013). That number increases to 46% within the last 2 years and rises further still to over 60% going past the 2-year mark. This felt true in my own experience. Throughout my high school years, I saw people lose friends left and right to freak accidents, sometimes drug-related, sometimes car crashes. I never in my wildest dreams imagined it would happen to me. People would post photos on Instagram and Facebook paying tribute to their dead friends, young lives lost at 15 and 16 years old. The only way you found out about anything significant was through social media, whether it be someone’s heartwarming tribute to their recently deceased grandmother or a gut-wrenching post about a classmate’s friend who made the fatal mistake of getting in the car with a drunk driver. Of course, these grieving kids were still nestled in their hometowns, living under their parent’s roofs, and had peers and friends to comfort them every day at school. Losing a friend while you’re living alone in the real world for the first time is a bit more challenging, given the circumstances. I walked around aimlessly for days watching the world swim by me, unable to focus on responsibilities. I was away from home, from everything I’d ever known, and I was still expected to put on a brave face, attend class, and work on assignments that seemed meaningless in the wake of such tragedy. The only thing that got me through was knowing that Shelby would hate it if I let my grades slip or mental health suffer at her expense. I made sure I talked to her frequently. The feeling of attachment to a loved one even after they’ve passed is understood as “continuing bonds,” a concept first introduced in 1996 by grief communication theorists Klass, Silverman, and Nickman. As they put it: “Rather than severing all ties, the bereaved find ways to renegotiate and understand their relationship with the deceased now that they have passed on.” -Klass Obviously, we didn't have Facebook in the ’90s, so researchers now have introduced the influence of social media in their studies of continued bonds. Relationships are formed and maintained online, and online dating is more normal than ever. I looked to Pennington’s modern model of grief communication, which states: “Interdependence is sustained even in the absence of one of the parties. The central premise of continuing bonds as a model for grief is that although physically absent, the relationship formed between two people does not end with death.” When Shelby passed away, my mom told me about Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. She defined grief as a process to help people make sense of their mourning. At first, Ross received criticism for trying to put a timeline on human emotion, but it’s clear to anyone who has dealt with grief that you don’t necessarily experience these stages in that order. It’s important to note that acceptance is not synonymous with “getting over it,” or “moving on”. Shelby still occupies a big presence in my life, even all these years later, and it feels better to talk about her than to shy away from the pain of losing her. Pennington says — “A renegotiation of the relationship between the deceased and the bereaved has the chance to become both a normal and necessary part of the grieving process; an opportunity for the bereaved to grow from the experience.” People often get withdrawn or overly sympathetic when I bring up my dead friend, but it brings me joy to talk about her and the impact she had on my life. It would be much more painful to speak of the loss in a negative light, emphasizing all the “would haves” and “could haves” associated with someone who dies young. Researcher Tony Walter argues — “The purpose of grief is to construct a durable biography that allows the survivors to continue to integrate the deceased person into their lives and to find a stable and secure place for them.” Once I realized I could still have a relationship with Shelby even after her death, things got a lot easier; it may be difficult for those who’ve never lost a loved one to understand how our bond continues. At first, I was struggling with it too, feeling the memories of Shelby slipping away, like I was trying to recount a dream. But I soon realized she was still very much alive in my heart and mind. She was going to live on through me, with me, forever. The existing studies on grief communication only confirm what I already knew in my heart to be true: “You don’t de-friend the dead.”