How Shared Grief on Facebook Makes Me Feel Less Isolated

Facebook has become a source of solace for me since I lost my daughter.

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Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash

My Facebook feed probably doesn’t look like yours. Even by the loosest definition of the phrase “insulated bubble,” my feed is a bit unusual.

I have the typical connections — friends, family, acquaintances new and old — but I’m also connected to dozens of bereaved parents. Over the years, I’ve joined several Facebook grief groups and this increases the likelihood that I’ll see at least one heart-wrenching post each day from a parent who has experienced the worst loss imaginable.

Like me, some of them have lost a child to cancer. Others have lost their children in equally terrible ways — accidents, domestic violence, a drug overdose, a sudden or not-so-sudden illness.

At this point in my grief (three years and seven months, but who’s counting?) the cause of death isn’t really the point because we’re all living the same, terrible truth.

On any given day, my feed will suddenly veer away from politics, pandemics, nature photos, and home renovations into the realm of the unthinkable.

I don’t see the point in going on anymore…

Today she would’ve turned 21…

I’m not sure how I’ll get through this first Christmas…

No one understands the agony…

Except, some of us do understand the agony because we’re living it too. Whenever I see a post like this, I pause my perpetual scrolling and take the time to acknowledge it, sometimes with a “care” response and sometimes by simply posting the child’s name sandwiched between two hearts, like this:

❤Ana❤

I do this because seeing and hearing our dead child’s name is a balm to our souls.

The ugly shoes club

There is an old poem called, “I am wearing a pair of shoes” that pops up on parental grief forums, bereavement websites, and all over the place around Mother’s Day. I haven’t been able to find the author’s name. The poem is always shared with the words, “author unknown” posted beneath it. Perhaps this is why it resonates with so many bereaved parents. All of us could have written it.

Here’s a snippet of the first few lines:

I am wearing a pair of shoes.
They are ugly shoes.
Uncomfortable shoes.
I hate my shoes.
Each day I wear them,
and each day I wish I had another pair.

We wear our ugly shoes each and every day because we have no choice, bearing a pain that makes people avoid us. I can hardly blame people for looking away, even though I ache to be seen.

No one wants to be part of the ugly shoes club, but few people can tolerate bearing witness to the fact that the club exists at all. That’s as true in real life as it is on social media.

Facebook posts flash by as a blur of cheerful moments and happy milestones. Sometimes it just hurts. I don’t feel like part of that blissfully unaware world anymore. If you’re wearing a pair of ugly, uncomfortable shoes, it’s impossible to feel normal (and don’t even get me started on the pain of Facebook memories.)

I started connecting with other bereaved parents because I needed guidance through the darkness of my daughter’s last few weeks of life, but what I didn’t realize was how much I’d need this sad little tribe of lost parents after she died.

If not for the bereaved parents I connected with shortly before Ana died, and the ones I continue to connect with years later — I would be much more isolated in my grief and, perhaps, more resentful about the world I’m no longer a part of.

It’s not unlike the need for new parents to connect with each other, so they know what they’re experiencing is normal — are cloth diapers manageable? When do you start solid food? How many naps does your child take each day?

The same is true for the bereaved parents. But, of course, the questions are different.

Did you change anything in her bedroom yet?

How often do you visit the cemetery?

Do you sleep with her favorite stuffed toy?

What will you do with his Christmas stocking?

I didn’t know how much I’d need to see people asking the same impossible questions and experiencing the same, specific type of suffering as me, until I connected with other grieving parents on Facebook.

It showed me that I’m not alone. It normalized not only the depth of my pain, but that the pain is forever. It made me realize that I’m still part of the world and my experiences, while different and often terrible, are valid. It clarified the fact that parental grief is a permanent condition — it may shift over time, but it does not diminish, not when it’s your baby that dies.

Grief and social media in the age of COVID

Despite what you may think, my Facebook feed is not the saddest corner of the internet. My fellow grieving parents post funny memes. They share photos of their surviving children. They talk of hope and healing and a renewed sense of purpose. This is, perhaps, the biggest benefit of connecting with fellow bereaved parents. They are proof that there is, in fact, an after.

It’s important to remember this now, when so many people are struggling with loss and uncertainty because of the virus and (if you live in America) a toxic, corrupt administration.

The depth of despair I’m seeing with friends and family who haven’t lost a child is profound.

I saw a shadow of it when Trump was elected, and most of us were completely blindsided. “What can it mean,” we thought, as a feeling of doom settled in around us, “That a man like this — a man without scruples or intelligence or empathy — has been elected to the highest leadership position in the country?”

Now, nearly four years after that terrible day, the consequences of the 2016 election are much worse than I’d feared. Well, almost — he hasn’t started a nuclear war (yet). But his soulless incompetence has amounted to a death toll from the virus that’s approaching 230,000 in the U.S. It promises to get much worse before it gets better.

Grief is now an everyday occurrence on my Facebook feed. People are suffering, grieving lost family members, worried about their jobs, unsure of how they’ll pay for the next emergency, and absolutely distracted with anxiety about getting sick.

There are a lot more posts from people asking for help or sharing how they plan to handle what’s shaping up to be a sad, socially isolated holiday season.

There’s more honesty and community on my feed these days, more frank admissions of fear and depression. In between posts about homemade bread, back-to-school strategies, and the (many) new puppies and kittens, there are pleas for help.

I haven’t seen my mother in six months. I miss her so much.

My child is struggling with remote learning. Any tips for how to make this easier for him?

My daughter’s missing out on her senior year and I’m heartbroken.

I don’t know what I’ll do if he wins this election.

Yes, social media can increase our sense of isolation, but there’s also a flip side. When we reach out for help, when we share our experiences (even when they’re bad), and when we’re honest about being overwhelmed, then it can actually make us feel less isolated. In a year defined by loss, I’ll take whatever connection I can get.

Written by

Occasional poet. Writer of sad essays. Novelist. Birder and amateur photographer. I enjoy trees.

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