Laptop with people gathered online on screen.

Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

Processing together: Collective grief online

Early this year, death interrupted the lives of my circle of close friends and colleagues with the sudden and surprising loss of one of our own. While news was initially shared via phone calls and text messages, the one-on-one conversations to share such painful news gave way to Facebook posts as the death was announced on social media. Friends called one another and messaged that first day and for several weeks after to check in on each other.

However, one tool that I found most helpful was a Zoom call scheduled within twenty-four hours. Not everyone could make it. Some found for their own grief it was too much to process together that first day, but were glad space was available for those who wanted and needed to share together. I found it a helpful place to tell my friends that I love them, and that none of us had answers. It helped me find some footing when everything else we knew seemed to spiral away. We established a weekly Zoom to check in, and on social media we shared resources for grief, mental health, suicide, trauma, and more.

The advent of social media changed how we collectively process grief. While message boards and forums existed in the late 1990s, most collective grief was processed in person at vigils, memorials, and other public in-person gatherings. Calls were made and cards were sent. With social media, our ways of sharing information have not only sped up, but the mediums have changed. We share photos, we change our profile pictures, we add frames to those profile pictures to make a statement.

COVID-19 has also changed the way we process, as group video calls have become more common, and the livestreaming of funeral and memorial services allows for those previously unable to participate to be present, or even to watch at another time. For some this may seem distasteful. About six years ago, well before the pandemic, I was invited to the funeral of a friend’s mother, and they had their phones out recording the service. I was appalled. Later, my friend told me she was so glad they could share the video back home with their extended family who were unable to travel the U.S. from the country their mother was from. It made me rethink my aversion to such practice.

In 2020, a dear friend of mine died from cancer. Before vaccines were available, and with travel restrictions in place, I was honored to be able to preside over her service on Zoom, which I wrote about here. At that time, I shared these words: “I imagine that in a post-COVID world, we may still want to take advantage of this technology, especially for family and friends who are unable to travel, or have medical conditions that would make it dangerous to be in person.” Now, coming out of the pandemic, many of us in the church world have accepted and embraced this practice for our own processing of grief.

As we learn to adapt in a post-pandemic world, the tools we learned during the pandemic can continue to be useful to us. Having the opportunity to participate in memorials and funerals online is important for processing grief in a new way.

I was unable to attend my friend’s funeral, nor another funeral for a colleague scheduled for the same day, due to a previous commitment I was unable to back out of. At first, I was devastated I could not be there. However, I was invited to record myself leading a collective prayer and was able to watch the livestream. While thousands of miles away, I still felt part of the service. It was not the same as being there in person, but it was the best way for me to participate and feel that grief was not mine alone, and I was grateful for the ways I could participate.

In the days and weeks following, I know I have benefited from check-ins with friends, either in text messages or Zoom calls. When I shared with my therapist that my friends held weekly Zoom gatherings, she was impressed that we had recognized the need to continue to process the grief together. Social media has allowed us all to share our photos and memories. I know that even over the years following loved ones’ deaths, scanning those old photos and sharing on social media has provided comfort and even joy. While grief never fully leaves us, these digital tools allow us an opportunity to collectively remember.

As the world continues to change in terms of technology and social norms, my hope is that we embrace what is helpful and useful, even if at first it seems strange, unconventional, or even a social faux pas. There are certainly times to refrain from posting and sharing on social media, especially when immediate family members have not been notified yet or when family has asked for information not to be shared.

Nonetheless, especially as we learn to adapt in a post-pandemic world, the tools we learned during the pandemic, where many of us felt isolated and alone, can continue to be useful to us. Telehealth appointments for therapy and counseling are now widespread, bringing greater access to mental health care. Connecting with family and friends via video calls such as Zoom and sharing in worship together helps ease isolation, especially for those who are immunocompromised, disabled, and for those whose work or life commitments don’t allow in-person participation.

Having the opportunity to participate in memorials and funerals online is important for processing grief in a new way. We know for our own mental health that funerals and memorials help the grief process move forward. We acknowledge that death interrupts our lives, and we are reminded of our own mortality. As Christians, we are reminded that death does not have the final word. We know in Christ we are part of something greater than ourselves. As we continue to share memories and photos online, we have assurance that we are not alone in our memories and grief.

Rev. Mindi Welton-Mitchell is executive minister, American Baptist Churches of Wisconsin.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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