I lost a close friend last week, and I am hoping this column can be of as much help to me personally—to organize my thoughts and feelings, and to remind myself of important coping tasks—as it can be to our community of readers who have struggled with similarly painful events in their own lives.When a death is sudden and unexpected, as my friend’s was, the blow comes at an appallingly quick pace. You get bowled-over with grief and emotional pain. There’s shock. Disbelief. Numbness.I had the weird experience of being by myself when the news came. I called my wife, we spoke a bit. I called some other friends, we spoke a bit. Then, I was alone at my desk. I sent a bunch of emails to share the news. I started getting many messages. My friend was an icon in our field of psychology, known far and wide. For me, however, she wasn’t an abstract luminary, she was among my closest friends. I was (and still am) feeling heartbroken.After a while, I thought about Facebook. I dug out some nice pictures of her and us, and posted them with some nice words. This act made me feel instantly better. I don’t mean “all better,” but as if I had lifted part of the weight of my sadness.Reflecting on this experience a bit, I think two important things were happening. First, I made a public statement about the loss, and this allows for social support. I felt better knowing people knew about my friend and what was happening; it felt equally good knowing that there were people out there—some of whom I haven’t seen in years—just thinking about me and the crazy senselessness of life in general.Second, I felt like I was doing something. I was opening a dialog about my friend and sharing news about how wonderful she was. In this way, it struck me that Facebook (and likely all online forms of social connection) has become part of the ritual surrounding how we cope with death. Rituals are cultural practices that provide meaning in our lives.How do we make sense of the senseless? We create meaning by sharing information, telling stories, weaving a narrative. This helps us ease our pain, and by participating in this process, we take a step forward in our healing. Without a doubt, Facebook is now part of the ritual process.From Good to BadFollowing my post, two other things happened on Facebook, both of which made me feel a little worse. The first was pretty minor. Recall that I just said that by participating in the rituals of mourning, we begin to heal. This is true, but it is quite possible to “over participate” in these rituals as well. I found myself going over and over posts about my friend—I was seeking them out, waiting for new posts and then reading them all day long. I caught myself and decided to go for a walk to clear my head.Of course, all this unfolded in the first few days after my friend’s death. I call this a minor problem (for me) because engaging with the information about a loss—the facts, the sympathies, the remembrances—can be very healthy. There becomes a point, however, when you need more distance.By nature, Facebook doesn’t prevent you from getting distance. I could have just as easily spent the day going through old photo albums or whatever it was people did before we became so attached to technology. At the same time, disengaging from Facebook can be harder than from a lot of other things, and, I found out, the tendency to wait for the next post—to hover—is magnified when it surrounds a loss or something you feel deeply about. We love Facebook in large part because of the reinforcement provided by others’ posts to your wall. But they come at what is called a “variable schedule,” which means that we don’t know when to expect them, and therefore spend inordinate amounts of time in a state of nervous anticipation. We become programed by the rewards of this interactive feedback to seek more of the same feedback. It can border on obsessive.My second problem grieving on Facebook is that the news cycle is fast. After 24 or so hours in the real world, I still felt very crappy. Facebook, however, had moved on and it was now back to sweet posts of children, animals and the usual ridiculousness of religion and politics.Sure, there were a few more posts trickling about my friend, but I was becoming angry that I was being forgotten, which meant my friend was being forgotten. Was I really being forgotten? Of course not, it just feels that way sometimes. In order to see things a bit more clearly, I needed to realize that Facebook served a good purpose for me. I also needed to see it for what it is and re-shape my expectations accordingly. (As an aside, there are many excellent memorial pages on Facebook—these tend to keep the discussions and memories going longer than what I am talking about there.)In order to prepare for this column, I did some research about grieving on Facebook and other social networks. I didn’t learn anything too striking. It occurs to me that there’s not too much new here, except for some of the issues I’ve outlined above based on my own experiences.Facebook and other online forums are an unequivocal part of our culture, and they’re especially relevant and helpful when people are geographically dispersed. It should come as no surprise, then, that technology has a place in modern mourning. We should be aware of the potential pitfalls, keep our expectations tempered, then go forward online to participate in giving and getting the support we need.Grief in General: A Few RemindersHaving said my piece about Facebook and my friend, I thought I would end this column by writing a few words about grief in general and what psychological science has told us about coping with loss. Here are a few key ideas:
- There are likely no stages of grief. We long ago debunked the idea that people go through distinct stages when they cope with a loss or prepare for their own death. This helps answer the question of “What should I feel now?” The answer is that you might and can feel anything at any time—you might wake up sad, then feel angry, then go back and forth all day long. That’s OK. Let yourself feel what you’re going to feel.
- With respect to this last point, I have long-maintained in my YouBeauty columns that our problems following difficult life events are rarely our emotions; rather, our reactions to our emotions is often what creates more problems for us. Be an observer of your emotions; let them come and go and come and go as they will. You can even avoid strong feelings if you want, provided that they pass when you put them “under the rug.” If you put strong emotions under the rug and they come oozing out the other side, then you have a problem. Drinking or self-medicating to excess are escapist coping strategies that often create their own set of problems in the end.
- Give yourself time to slow down and reflect. Grief has a function, and our feelings about loss were designed over the course of evolutionary history to prevent us from being eaten by a lion while we were thinking about a lost friend. The need to slow down and withdraw a bit is very real. Give yourself a chance to do this and don’t judge yourself for what you can or can’t do while you’re mourning.
- Think back, then think forward. We know a bit about the best ways to cope with loss, and as time unfolds this often involves balancing thinking about the past with imagining the future. In doing so, we engage with the death and everything I was talking about above, then engage a bit in the future—new relationships, redefining ourselves, filling holes in our lives. Over time (on a scale of months), we should start engaging more with the future. What appears most healthy is the flexibility to move from the past to the future and back again. Try to cultivate this kind of perspective.
- Be with people. I started this column talking all about Facebook. My point here, however, is about real people in real life. It helps to process painful information with other people, to sit around and share in the commonality of loss in person. Don’t let yourself get isolated.
- Finally, know when things can get complicated. Complicated grief is a severe problem in which the pain of loss extends beyond six months and in which our ability to do the activities of daily life becomes quite impaired. If you or someone you know is still suffering quite a lot six months after a loss, contact a psychologist or suggest this to your friend or family member.
Death is a part of life—a very hard, sad and upsetting part of life. Despite the pain, we all must face a big loss. I hope my thoughts on how to cope well, be it on Facebook or in “real life,” are helpful as you move forward.QUIZ: Has Loss Increased Your Overall Stress Level?