How Instagram is changing the grieving process

In the time of Zoom funerals and limited social contact, grieving young people are turning to dedicated communities online to process loss.

by Clea Skopeliti
|
17 March 2021, 12:50pm

Still from Spirited Away

Dimple Kainth lost her mother, Jasbir, at the peak of the pandemic’s first wave. The 64-year-old was ill with a long-term respiratory condition and in April, after agonising over whether to send her into hospital, her family decided to admit her. They never got the chance to say goodbye.

Dimple, 28, from Coventry, describes herself as having always been a “class clown”, joking around to make her friends and family laugh. But since her mum’s death, she’s felt like she has to put up a facade of her former self. ”I’ve never really been good at opening up to anyone. So it’s hard to show a different side of yourself,” she says over the phone.

None of her friends have lost a parent and she feels they don’t really understand what she’s going through. So one evening, months after Jasbir’s passing, she wrote into the Griefcase, an Instagram page that features users’ submissions on bereavement.

People share their experiences on the page through drawings, poetry, photos and more, detailing how it felt to lose someone close to them. Practical pieces of advice, like encouraging people to check on their grieving friends, sit on blocks of colour, floating amid individual stories of loss.

“You recognise yourself in the most obscure statements,” Dimple says, ”there’s been so many times that I’ve thought, ‘that could be me writing this’.”

The Griefcase is one of a growing number of IG pages offering people a space to express their feelings about loss, a part of the wider ‘death positivity’ movement. Poppy Chancellor, 33, started the page as a way to remember her father, Jock, after he died five years ago. The London-based illustrator says it’s since “ballooned into a space for other people to connect”, adding, “If I can create a platform for people to share, that heals me too.”

“The stuff that I share now is about what it’s really like to be experiencing grief, I don't always cry, I don't always feel a palatable emotion. I actually feel resentment a lot of the time.”

Before the pandemic, Poppy ran in-person discussions, where around 15 people would meet up in east London once a month. They’ve since relocated to Zoom, and the IG has grown into a virtual noticeboard of deeply personal stories from people from all around the world.

“It’s been amazing because you get perspectives from different cultures, thoughts and processes on grief,” Poppy says. “It’s not just a London-based thing with my family and friends anymore — it’s more of a community experience now.”

The coronavirus pandemic has unleashed a tidal wave of death and grief, while also cruelly curtailing our ways of processing loss: tiny, distanced funerals, many unable to say goodbye to family and friends. Regardless of whether the death is recent or years ago, it’s important to have spaces to discuss feelings “without fear of bringing the mood down”, says 24-year-old Seb Woollard.

Almost five years on from his mum Liz’s death, Seb, who lives in Leeds, wrote to the Griefcase. Seb says although he’d occasionally posted about his mum on social media before, he’d never really open up about how her death had affected him.

“I'd never really spoken publicly about what grief was. It was more this sort of ‘Hollywood grief’, where you only show the bits you want to be seen. So I started thinking I need to start telling my story properly – more to be honest with myself than anything else.”

His words received an outpouring of support from both friends and strangers, and he’s since started hosting discussions with The New Normal, a charity for young bereaved people, hoping to get more young men in particular to open up about their feelings as well. “The stuff that I share now is about what it’s really like to be experiencing grief,” Seb says. “I don't always cry, I don't always feel a palatable emotion. I actually feel resentment a lot of the time.”

Everyone experiences grief in a different way, explains Dr. John Troyer, director of Bath University’s Centre for Death & Society: “As soon as you try to create a model, it creates a false expectation of where people feel they should be.”

Dr. Troyer hopes that after the pandemic, and as a society, we can gain a better understanding of the connections we carry on having with people we’ve lost after they’ve died. And it’s natural that digital platforms will play a part in that.

“Although memorialising the dead on social media may appear like a modern idea, it’s just the latest iteration in a long tradition.”

“The explosion in dying is so outside the norm that I think we’ll see a better understanding of continuing bonds, where people feel a connection to a person who’s died,” he says. “It’s completely healthy for people to consider that they have a bond with the deceased, even though the person is no longer there.

“I think we’re going to see it with [Coronavirus], partly because there are so many people who had no reason to expect that they were going to have a loved one or friend die this way, at this time, at this age.”

Although memorialising the dead on social media may appear like a modern idea, it’s just the latest iteration in a long tradition, Dr Troyer says, pointing to how a key initial function of the telephone was to notify people that someone had died.

“New media technology will inevitably be used to memorialise the dead. It’s just what we do. Now, this does not devalue the grief, which is always the risk of any new technology — because it is new it will initially be described as being inappropriate to use. I remember, many years ago, the gnashing of teeth over the use of Facebook to remember someone who died, and how that cheapened the experience of grief. Which, of course, was not true.”

Amber Jeffrey, the 23-year-old host of The Grief Gang podcast, started out just wanting to hear from other grieving young people following her mum’s passing in 2016. “I wanted to listen to someone young talk about losing a parent, but all I could find was people looking back on it decades later. I wanted to hear from someone who was in the thick of it. So I thought, ‘I’ll do it myself. It’s going to help me and if it helps one other person, that’s fantastic.’”

Although the Grief Gang started with Amber sharing her own story, she’s since used the platform to speak to people about different forms of grief, interviewing people who’ve lost their babies, romantic partners or best friends. “I try to give people the opportunity to talk about their loved one because for some people in their everyday lives, they’re not given permission to speak about them.”

She says since the pandemic, the online grief community has grown exponentially. Young people, who may be experiencing bereavement for the first time, have been hit with a double whammy, Amber explains — they can’t go see friends or distract themselves. There’s no respite from sitting with their loss.

“This is not a normal way to mourn. It’s not normal to have a funeral on Zoom, to FaceTime your mum while she dies in hospital and then just go back to your bedroom,” Amber says. “Coming out of lockdown, there’s going to be so many firsts for bereaved people — that’s going to feel overwhelming.”

Looking toward the end of lockdown, Dimple hopes that the people we lost this year won’t just be brushed aside and forgotten. “It feels like people who haven’t lost a loved one are just focused on the possibility of freedom and going back to normal. They forget that many people will never go back to ‘normal’ again.”

With the rise of digital communities, Amber hopes the conversation around grief will begin to change. “I just hope it encourages people to talk about their experiences and their loved ones. If they can do it online, they can do it in their real life too.”

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