Facebook Wall as Condolence Note?

Is it okay to express sympathy on social media? How does one best support parents grieving an infant? Our advice guru tackles these questions in her latest column

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top-meg5A friend of mine posted on Facebook that his mother passed away. I see these grief posts pretty frequently, and I’m never sure what the appropriate response is. If a friend’s loved one dies, do I post a condolence note on his wall or private message him — or just contact him offline? It seems that if he put this information out over Facebook that he is expecting responses on Facebook.  What do you think? And does the protocol change when the person posting about a death in the family is a colleague or acquaintance, rather than a friend? 

My first rule of grief is that the worst thing you can do is nothing. So at the risk of horrifying both grandmothers and etiquette experts everywhere, I think you are correct that if someone posts about a loss in their life on Facebook, you are not in the wrong to respond on Facebook. There are two main reasons for this, one:  I generally feel that you should follow the grieving person’s lead as much as possible (i.e. talk about the person if they want to talk about the person/don’t if they don’t). Two is that I think a medium like Facebook can be a great way to provide someone with a much-needed real-time jolt of sympathy and community. And community support, both in real life and increasingly online, is an important part of the mourning process. That being said, is a Facebook comment sufficient for a friend mourning his mother? Of course not. A more thoughtful follow-up, whether it’s a note or a call or an e-mail is in order.

Death is such an uncomfortable topic. I think it can be a helpful trick to substitute a less-loaded phrase to help consider a response to someone who is more of an acquaintance than a friend. For example, substitute someone saying: “it’s my birthday” for “my mother just died.” That sounds crazy, but stick with me for a moment. If you were in a meeting with a work colleague and she randomly said, “today’s my birthday,” you would probably casually say: “oh, happy birthday!”  Similarly, saying (or posting) something as simple as “I’m so sorry” or “My condolences” should come just as easily.

Our baby step-niece passed away recently. She was just over one year old. The tragedy is overwhelming and upsetting to us as parents of two babies. What is an appropriate thing to send to a baby’s funeral? Flowers seem odd, but balloons too cheerful. What about a stuffed animal? We are at a loss.

The challenge of what to send, particularly in the face of such a devastating tragedy, is that in considering it, you are forced to recognize how essentially useless all of the “things” you could send are. Most funeral rituals come from the desire to celebrate a life and to comfort the bereaved. But how do you authentically celebrate such a short life?  How do you comfort the family who has suffered such a terrible loss?

Truthfully, I think your presence, both in the immediate aftermath and in the longterm, is far more important than whether or not you send flowers. If you absolutely feel the need to send something, I would say follow the family’s lead: First memorial donations (if the family has requested), then food (because at least it’s practical), then flowers (if it is appropriate to their religion, if they have one). I would steer clear of balloons and stuffed animals, as they seem to me to have too much potential to magnify the family’s sense of loss.

In the longer term, either in a year or at her next birthday, a more meaningful action will probably become clearer to you. Maybe plant a tree in memory of your niece, something that will grow and change, as she would have. Or donate some children’s books to a local library. And please be sure to mark her birthday on your calendar. Your relatives will certainly be thinking of her; it would be good for you to let them know you are as well.

Meg Tansey hails from New England, where talking about your feelings is frowned upon. She has lots of life experience but is not an actual therapist. Meg has a MFA from The New School and currently lives and writes in New York City. Send Meg your questions at hello@modernloss.com (subject: Ask ML).

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