Dying in the Age of Social Media

Death is typically a private affair, with those in the US even making a private industry regarding the process of dying. People who are experiencing long and drawn out deaths are often hospitalized or placed into hospice care or into a nursing home. Death is distant for those who are alive, with the dying being handled by professionals. This is the way things have been in modern history in Western society. However, this may be changing. Recently, social media has become more popular than ever, with millions using sites such as Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and Youtube. This has created public connections in areas that have always been respected as private, such as death and dying.

The surge of social media usage has not escaped those who find themselves in the process of dying. In fact, some of these people have capitalized on this market and have shared their stories and experiences in a non clinical setting. This has allowed a community to develop within the internet of those who can understand and empathize one another’s experiences. Having someone to talk to who is going through the same thing is perhaps easing the way for individuals who find themselves dying.

This phenomenon has also provided a surge in autopathography, or ill people who are writing their autobiographies, including their documentation of illnesses. The openness of these people who are dying is providing physicians and therapists with valuable information regarding their thoughts and feelings during their last days. While people may be reluctant to share their deepest thoughts with medical professionals, they often find it much easier to share with strangers who know what they’re going through. This can assist these professionals in treating the dying in all aspects of their lives, not just the purely physical symptoms.

The use of social media in death is also allowing families and friends more time and ways to grieve. As their loved ones are immortalized with profiles, blogs, pictures, and videos, they can revisit these things at their leisure and take comfort in knowing that they’re always there. Similarly, it provides distance, because while mementos kept in a home are constant visible reminders of what they’ve lost, having the ability to look at social media kept by loved ones after they’ve past requires the effort and the conscious decision to look at it.

However, this publicization of death has come with a drawback in that the dying are focusing more on publishing their experiences. This has raised concerns that they are possibly withdrawing from friends and family, in favor of virtual friends and robbing the family of the chance to say goodbye. While this is certainly a possibility, after all, death is about the living, not the dead, I think it is selfish to deprive people from access to those who understand the intimate details of their illness. If death is about those left behind, then the least we can do is make dying about those who are actually dying.


2 responses to “Dying in the Age of Social Media

  1. Hi Serena! Thank you for bringing attention to and introducing autopathography. This is the first time I have heard the terminology though I am familiar with some written works by individuals who are or were experiencing illness and going through the dying process. Your post only reminds me of how dominant of a social platform media has become over the last few decades. I believe narratives have an enormous potential to do good—to help make people feel more connected, empowered and comfortable in the process of dying (for both the living and the dying.) In recent years, I’ve personally struggled with feelings of frustration, hopelessness and anger when processing the deaths of some family members and friends, and I was eventually able to reconcile these emotions through shared narratives. These narratives came in the form of conversations and vulnerable moments with friends, but it also came in the form of the memoir “When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi. To me, if media can help make these types of narratives more accessible and can help people feel less lonely in their experiences, then sharing death on social media isn’t a bad thing.

  2. When my son took his life I was left devastated and shattered. The emotions and thoughts were overwhelming and confusing and being in a new country, village and home, my only way I found to help me process my grief was through posting to social media, in particular Instagram. I’d walk the coast here and images would help me put thoughts and emotion to words. I’d post the image and the writing inspired by them, without thought to how they would be received. In doing this I was able to connect with many who were also experiencing grief in one form or another.

    Not all grief is the same or how someone processes, or even how long it takes to process, but that isn’t important, we don’t compare grief. We immediately connect because only those who have experienced it can understand it.

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