This past summer, I wrote about my mother’s battle with a terminal brain illness, which has left her blind and with dementia. After publishing the post, I sent the link to a few family members, but I also shared it on Twitter. Then I headed out for a run to clear my head.
The first person to respond to my tweet was a former student, who thanked me for sharing my story. I remember so clearly seeing the notification, mid-run. My immediate reaction was one of confusion – some part of me had not considered that by sharing my post on Twitter, definitely the most public and professional of social networks for me, everyone would see it; my social contexts, so carefully separated in real life, were collapsed online. I felt vulnerable, but I also felt a sense of comfort and relief.
When I asked my family if it was okay to share what I’d written about my mother, my sister asked me why I wanted to post it online. I wasn’t sure then, and I’m sure not entirely sure now. Sharing online is an odd business, really, one that I’m still trying to wrap my head around. So much has been written about the ways in which social media has changed the way we relate to one another, from the digital dualists who argue that we need to privilege our face to face connections by unplugging, to those, like Nathan Jurgenson, who argue that Facebook is real life – that social media has merely shifted and augmented our relationships. Certainly, social networks have made it possible for us to share wonderful moments with a wide audience (like the recent video of a son who paid off his parents’ mortgage). But they have also shifted the nature of mourning, from private and localized suffering to a new, globalized grief.
Of course, this is not always a positive: our public/publicized mourning has led to hoaxes where people take advantage of human generosity and kindness, and it also backfired recently for Facebook, where the automatically generated “Year in Review” feature brought back painful memories for some users. It has led to the strange phenomenon of grief porn. And it has made it difficult at times for us to move on from traumatic events, as we are constantly reminded of them.
But the sharing of pain and trauma is also (for me, at least), on some level deeply comforting. Research suggests that social networking sites are so satisfying (and at times addictive) because of the endorphins that are released when we post or receive feedback from others in the form of likes, favourites, or comments, so perhaps this plays in role in why we share. And certainly there is something wonderful about receiving words of encouragement and sympathy from complete strangers, who reach out online out of simple human empathy. It is, in a sense, a reassurance of the deep-down, fundamental kindness of people: a reminder that grief is in many ways the great equalizer, a feeling to which we can all relate.
As I write, I watch my terminally-ill mother sleeping on the couch beside me. I am struck by the rapid decline in her functioning even since this summer, when I first shared her story. The moments of clarity come rarely now for her, and this Christmas has been tough for my family. And once again, I am drawn to share this, not only to write about how I am feeling, but to put it out into the world – to feel connected and, perhaps, simply to feel human in the midst of difficulty and pain.