News, Culture & Society

Posting condolences on social media is NOT helpful, survey finds 

You may think you know how to be a supportive friend in a time of loss, grief, and devastation. 

But a new report suggests many of us – particularly in the era of social media – may be off the mark. 

Glaringly, the research, a special report by WebMD, found most people who are grieving find social media posts or messages about their loss to be either pointless, irritating or actively distressing – in fact, barely anyone thought they were a good idea.

Even offline, though, most people feel pressure to be cheery and breezy after three months, when in reality it takes vast majority up to a year later to come to terms with their loss. 

The survey of over 1,000 US adults found more than two thirds had grieved in the past three years – many for reasons besides losing a loved-one, including the loss of a career, of a friend, of possessions, of good health.

Many experienced symptoms that might not typically be associated with grief – some solely feeling anger and no sadness, some inexplicably tired, many developing physical symptoms, such as insomnia.

So you can you help a friend in need? And how can you give yourself time, space, and understanding when grieving? Dr Seth J Gillihan, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania and WebMD contributor, spoke to about the pitfalls we all have a tendency to fall into, and how to curb our somewhat unhelpful instincts.

The survey found some common gestures offered to many people experiencing grief: saying ‘it could be worse’, recommending that they move on, offering unsolicited advice on how to handle their grief, or posting on social media (file image)

‘It’s so common,’ Dr Gillihan sighed. ‘We all try to do one of two things.’

First, we spring into action. 

‘We try to fix the person’s grief, to take it away, either by minimizing it, saying “I’m surprised you’re so upset!”, or by trying to offer advice – “this was helpful to my aunt when she lost her husband,”‘ Gillihan explains. 

All of it may be ‘very well-intentioned, nice things,’ he says, ‘but it comes across as dismissive.’

Second, we disappear.   

‘We do too much but we also do too little. We show up right away, we say “I’m so sorry,” “everything happens for a reason,” “maybe you should read this book.”‘

‘Then after a relatively short period of time, we disappear.’

The survey found some common gestures offered to many people experiencing grief: saying ‘it could be worse’, recommending that they move on, offering unsolicited advice on how to handle their grief, or posting on social media. 

Rarely were those tactics effective – making 46 percent, 42 percent, 33 percent and 41 percent feel worse, respectively.  

But, Dr Gillihan explains, slipping into these unhelpful approaches doesn’t make you a ham-handed emotional amateur; even professional therapists are still developing their understanding of how to best to help people through grief. 

Fifty years ago, Dr Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, a Swiss-American psychiatrist, radically suggested that we should acknowledge and give space to grief, rather than brushing it under the carpet, as was custom. 

However, in doing so, she published a stage-specific guide: ‘the stages of grief,’ in 1969 in her seminal book On Death & Dying.

It was groundbreaking, mainly because it suggested that we should be open about our weakness in the wake of a loss. 

She said we should recognize each moment of grief, and dedicate time to dealing with that pain. According to Kubler-Ross, after we lose a loved-one, we experience (in order): denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

It was controversial then, and is controversial now, but for different reasons. 

These days, the biggest gripe is that it is so rigid. Most disagree with the idea that grief could be at all logical. 

Grief is incredibly nuanced, incredibly personal, and complex to master – whether you’re experiencing it, or witnessing someone go through it.  

As the WebMD report found, grief can manifest itself in many different, and sometimes surprising ways, and can linger for longer than we, or those around us, expected.

Having a step-by-step guide to what you might feel can be comforting, it steels you for the possibility that you may feel different things over time. But it can also feel prescriptive, and can lead you to question whether you’re grieving ‘right.’

Today, there is a widespread understanding that the Kubler-Ross model is perhaps too rigid, but Dr Gillihan suspects ‘it is more common’ than a more nuanced approach. If you are grieving, ‘make space for your own grieving process, and don’t question whether you’re grieving right,’ Dr Gillihan says, and ‘trust in your inherent wisdom of your mind and spirit. Go along with it.’

For those outside of the therapist’s office – a close friend, a loose friend, a colleague, an old classmate, a lover, an admirer – social media can be just as comforting a tool for your own emotions as Kubler-Ross’s guide is to the grieving. Posting a tribute or sending a message of condolence is a tangible way to express that you care when you’re not sure how best to help that person. 

It is, in some ways, human nature, Dr Gillihan says, to try and wrap up the situation and tie it with a bow. 

‘Instead of sitting with the person and just bearing witness, we – because of our own discomfort with loss – want to rush through that process.’  

Try, he says, to be a familiar presence – someone, reliable, around, contactable. Someone they can talk to about The Bachelor, their commute, that annoying colleague – and, if they want to, their loss. 

‘If you show up more often, and do less each time, in effect you are doing more,’ Dr Gillihan said.

‘Be less active but more present. Just sitting with the person to be a listening ear if they want to talk about anything, or watching TV with them. 

‘Maybe they don’t want to talk about their loss, and have a break, feel ‘normal.’  

‘The guiding principle is making space, saying less and rather than talking or doing things, just being there.’