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From Facebook memories to live-streamed funerals: how the internet has changed the way we grieve forever

Lauren John Joseph, author of debut novel At Certain Points We Touch, explains how the internet has changed the way we mourn forever. 

When my friend and sometime lover Peter was killed, it was through social media that I first found out. A friend of a friend posted some brief and thoughtless RIP quip to Facebook mid-afternoon, probably never considering how devastating it might feel for someone to learn the news that way.

That was 10 years ago, and our digital lives have only grown more complex since. But that afternoon still stands out to me as the moment I knew our collective online existence had changed how we experience grief forever.

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Today when a loved one dies, they remain present in a way we’ve never known before. Their pictures pop up without warning. Facebook memories tell you that “on this day five years ago” you and your lost one were in the park together. Old threads become active again when someone hops on to add a new comment. Defunct profiles live on to spam you with “Today is your friend’s birthday!” This is technically correct of course, only your friend is no longer here to celebrate.  

Today it’s no longer a question of avoiding certain places, certain films, or certain songs which may bring it all back – digital grief expands in horrible, uncanny ways.

For a year after her death, my friend Hattie’s account would auto-tweet a gun control petition every time there was a mass shooting in the US. Each time I saw it I would gasp, then wince, second-guessing myself, then realise that no, she really was gone.

Compounding this spectral uncertainty, with a particularly unkind irony, is the reality that our daily dependence on uploading and sharing to remote servers has made our memories ever more vulnerable.

We don’t shoot on film anymore, we don’t store wallets of party snaps in kitchen drawers; instead, we rely on the whims of social media. And if one day we go to look at a much-cherished picture on a friend’s account and that picture has been deleted, or if the network declares that the image contravenes its standards and removes it, then what?

What happens when those perfectly ordinary, absolutely irreplaceable pieces of our lives are erased? Sometimes whole platforms disappear silently, seemingly overnight. Ask any millennial what became of their once indispensable Myspace profile and you’ll get a sorry story of much-missed images and exchanges, all long gone into the great cyber hereafter.  

Lauren John Joseph author photo portrait cr. Studio Prokopiou
Lauren John Joseph's debut novel, At Certain Points We Touch, is a razor-sharp coming-of-age story.

The unpredictable nature of loss is mirrored by these dual experiences, waves of confusion and sudden desolation, in a manner that’s perhaps only an electronic exaggeration of an immemorial aspect of human suffering.

What is new in our age of global connectivity, is the extremely public nature of grief today. Every time a celebrity dies, no matter how long forgotten or unremarkable they may have been, they will inevitably be sent off with a one-day fanfare of “Always loved her. Remember seeing her outside Woolworths in 1989 – very kind eyes.” Seemingly everyone wants to participate in this macabre charade. Then comes the casual cruelty of strangers, cracking tasteless jokes in the comments section, or casting aspersions on lives wholly unknown to them.

Peter died at a party in the home of a famous fashion photographer, and so it was splashed across the news; the slew of vicious, misspelt comments about his death being comeuppance for his (supposed) party boy lifestyle of drugs and gay sex was one of the most unbearable aspects of losing him. 

Our digital world has brought our emotions to a permanent fever pitch but has yet failed to provide us with an appropriate channel for this passion, and so often it is misdirected.

However, among the roars, both factious and fragile, it seems to me there is also some squeak of hope – one promise big tech may actually deliver, or rather be corrupted to fulfil. In making ourselves a new home online, we are also developing new ways to use technology, putting it to uses that the original developers could never have imagined. This, of course, includes the creation and adaptation of rituals to share and express grief.

The pandemic has shown how adaptable we are as humans; how quick and capable we are of utilising the tools we have (or can refashion) to meet our needs. Live-streamed funerals and online wakes, memorial pages where friends share memories; the internet gave us new strategies to handle our grief through two years of loss and isolation.  

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I’ve even seen YouTube videos that function as ersatz chapels, with prayers for intercession and remembrance left as comments on videos of the lives of the saints. Grief is like that; it’s as dynamic and changeable as it is inescapable, much like our digital landscape. We are always living with(in) it, so we’d better make peace with it. Besides I can’t really stay mad at the internet for serving me this decade of painful reminders that my friend and sometimes lover is gone, can I? Because after all, it is where we first met.

At Certain Points We Touch by Lauren John Joseph is published by Bloomsbury on 3 March 2022. 

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Images: Getty; Studio Prokopiou