The Remediation of Grief Online
…Loss is inseparable from what remains, for what is lost is known only by what remains of it, by how these remains are produced, read, and sustained.
– David L. Eng and David Kazanjian, “Mourning Remains”
My cousin was thirty-five when she died, after the lung cancer she had been battling for four years had metastasized to her brain. This October will be the six-year anniversary of her death, but there are traces that survive her, handmade gifts we had received over the years: a Christmas card written in her rounded, carefree script; a knotted fleece blanket; a set of pens decorated like a bouquet of wildflowers. There are also less tangible traces, like the blog in which she chronicled her treatment and her Facebook profile where she lists Harry Potter and Avatar: The Last Airbender among her favorite books and television series.
These digital objects, more specifically digital remains (to use Margaret Gibson’s phrase), increasingly demonstrate the transformation and repurposing of social networking platforms as (semi-)public sites of mourning and memorialization. It is a practice that seems to share affinities with the philosophy of remix culture, although less so with its aesthetics. Katherine Groo argues, “As a practice, the remix generates (and regenerates), producing a seemingly endless becoming of the new and of the now that extends as far as the eye can see into the future” (3). While Groo is referring to remix’s tension with historicity, this process of “endless becoming” might be considered a metaphor to describe the way that these Facebook users destabilize the intended use of the platform and develop new uses as new needs arise, without limit. Dorthe Refslund Christensen and Kjetil Sandvik cite such repurposing as an example of their expanded definition of remediation, the “processes by which well-known practices are represented through new media formats” (7). The remediation of grief through social networking sites transgresses socially constructed notions of “acceptable” grieving, sometimes yielding public criticism.
Natalie Pennington analyzed in-depth interviews and content of Facebook profiles to examine the way that Facebook users interact with the profiles of the deceased. Some interviewees expressed that Facebook was an inappropriate venue for mourning or sending condolences, which points to a more general tension between public and private in social networking sites, and the notion that grieving is meant to be private. Others, however, found it was a source of support and a way of maintaining a connection with the deceased in a way that gave the user the choice in how much, or how little, to engage with the digital remains. Pennington observes, “each friend connected to the profile gets to make the choice on the role that the deceased will play in their life through this page over time, making this online form of support an ideal individualized opportunity for coping with grief” (245). Rather than the temporal and geographic limitations of site-specific mourning traditions, like memorial services, Facebook provides “the extended network the chance to come together in a space that is not dictated by time and location to grieve their loss and find support” (241). Moreover, the act of talking to the deceased online by posting on their wall or sending a message, can become a “socially shared activity” through which “the modern experience of hidden and privatised grief is opened up for demystification” (Gibson 228).
Another significant feature of Pennington’s analysis is Facebook’s role in continuing bonds. Summarizing the work of Silverman and Klass, she writes, “As qualitative studies have shown, it is the ability to maintain (continue) the bond with the deceased through memories and other forms of connections that the bereaved are best able to manage and cope with their grief” (242). Facebook, and other social networking sites, exemplify the means of maintaining such a bond digitally through the daily act of self-authorship enacted through the platform. A deceased user’s profile is effectively a repository of pictures, thoughts, conversations, videos, memories, and other media that takes on a new function after death. This post-mortem repository can be continually re-accessed for as long as the profile is hosted online.
Yet, the post-mortem repository is not limited to self-authored profiles and content. Such is the case for a son whose father passed away shortly after moving to a retirement community. In the process of selling his father’s house, Bill Frankel received a call from his brother telling him to look at the online listing. When he did, he saw his father, alive and tending his beloved yard, frozen in time by the cameras of the Google Street View project.
Though Mr. Frankel had only noticed his father in Google’s digital environment shortly after his father’s death in 2011, he believes that the photo had been there since 2007. Once made aware of his father’s image, Mr. Frankel recalls that he “frequently visited him [his father] online — logging on to introduce him to his grandchildren, but mainly just to make sure he was still there.” Google Street View might, here, be considered a transitional object, which Gibson argues, enables “the bereaved to negotiate the space between presence and absence, here and not here” (232). In addition, transitional objects “often have a double function enabling the bereaved to hold on and let go of the deceased at one and the same time” (232). Through Street View, his father is held in a liminal state between (digitally) alive and (corporeally) dead.
Three years later, the picture was updated and his father was gone. The revelation was devastating to Mr. Frankel and his family, who writes, “Only now does his loss feel real, for all of us.” His father’s digital death speaks to the way in which social networking sites inscribe a second life for the deceased in the form of their “digital social presence” through their digital repositories (Gibson 224). However, it also speaks to the potential importance of web archival practices in continuing to conceptualize the remediation grief, as a means of mitigating the uncertain future of content hosted on social networking sites’ servers.
The blanket has begun to fray and the pens have long run dry of ink, but my cousin’s blog is still there – for now, at least. The last entry was posted only a month before her death, but her optimism comes through clearly in the diction. The last few lines of the entry read, “I knew that even in the worst of circumstances, I am not alone. God is with me in the people around me and the people who send their love.” There she is, still fighting.
Eng, David L. and David Kazanjian. “Mourning Remains.” Loss: The Politics of Mourning. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002. 1-25.
Frankel, Bill. “Visiting Dad in Google Street View.” Modern Loss, 2 January 2014.
Gibson, Margaret. “Digital Objects of the Dead: Negotiating Electronic Remains.” The Social Construction of Death. Eds. Leen Van Brussel and Nico Carpentier. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. 221-238.
Groo, Katherine. “Cut, Paste, Glitch, and Stutter: Remixing Film History.”
Pennington, Natalie. “Grieving for a (Facebook) Friend: Understanding The Impact of Social Network Sites and the Remediation of the Grieving Process.” Mediating and Remediating Death. Eds. Dorthe Refslund Christensen and Kjetil Sandvik. Surrey, England: Ashgate, 2014. 233-250.
Refslund Christensen, Dorthe and Kjetil Sandvik. Introduction. Mediating and Remediating Death. By Refslund Christensen and Sandvik. Surrey, England: Ashgate, 2014. 1-20.