Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok can be lovely places to share your grief with your community — but they can also be places where people post without thinking.
Despite the fact that death has been a part of the human experience for as long as there have been humans, we’re still not great at dealing with it. We create rules, rituals, and etiquette to help us get through, but when you throw social media into the mix — a place where the etiquette rules are still so nebulous — things get scrambled.
Sites like Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok can be lovely places to share your grief with your community, which is one of the most important parts of grieving. But they can also be places where people post without thinking, especially when there’s a lot of emotion involved. So while there are no hard and fast rules for internet death etiquette yet, here are a few to help guide you through the RIP post.
Never, ever, ever post before on social media before the family does. Period. If you’re feeling like you need to share your feelings and the family hasn’t said anything online yet, direct message or text or call someone directly to talk about it. It’s the choice of the family of the deceased whether or not to involve the social media world and stepping on that choice by posting before them is just plain rude.
Sometimes people die in their sleep, in their 90s, after a long and happy life. But sometimes people die in sudden, tragic, shocking ways. For example, when a person decides to end their own life or dies from addiction, some families prefer to keep that information private.
Humans are naturally curious. But if the family isn’t saying how a person died, you shouldn’t either — even if you know. You should also avoid asking them directly, unless you’re a close friend. Feel free to snoop around on the internet and glean what information you can to satisfy that curiosity, but keep it to yourself. And definitely, definitely don’t post about it.
We know it’s tempting to tag the person who passed when you’re posting on Facebook. (And sometimes you don’t even do it on purpose, as anyone who has ever accidentally auto tagged someone knows.) It’s okay once in a while! But tagging them repeatedly can clutter up their page and also can freak out other people who are grieving. There’s nothing more jolting than seeing that someone was “with” a person who is actually dead, so just be conscientious about those tags.
Writer Taya Dunn Johnson lost her husband suddenly when he was only 36. She wrote about the experience of trying to deal with the immediate aftermath of his death while also juggling the fact that someone had posted on Facebook. That meant she was getting a million calls, text messages, and notifications from people in her life who were wondering what was going on.
As a result of that experience, Dunn worked out what she calls “the hierarchy of grief.” The idea is that, when someone dies, there are people whose grief matters more than others. In her case, for example, her grief mattered the most, followed by her family members, then close friends, and then extended friends and coworkers.
In the first couple of days after a death, the people at the top of that hierarchy are in charge of informing everyone else. If you’re lower in the hierarchy, you kind of need to wait your turn. That includes contacting the bereaved and posting on social media. Let them take care of themselves and their immediate loved ones first.
Which brings us to the next tip…
If you weren’t very close to the person who passed (like maybe you knew them in high school or worked with them a couple of jobs ago), consider leaving your condolences on the main post the family has created, rather than creating your own post. That way you’re showing your support for the family, but not making the whole thing about you and your feelings, when really it has very little to do with you.
We lean on platitudes and cliches because they usually speak to a universal truth. They’re a short cut; a common language for when language fails us. But they can also feel like you’re writing off the very, very real grief that family and close friends are feeling when someone dies.
For example, saying something like “at least they’re no longer suffering” or “they’re in a better place,” might feel to you like the right thing to say in the moment, but might feel to the person hearing it like you’re trying to dismiss their grief.
Instead, stick with genuine expressions of what you’re feeling for the person you’re talking to. Things like “My heart hurts so much for you right now” or “I’m so, so sorry this happened” are better and more genuine communications than even the most heartfelt platitude.
Death is tricky — and so is social media. But with a little bit of forethought and some common courtesy, we can all get through even the toughest times.
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