"Talking about his dead child, again!" Emotional self-management in relation to online mourning
First Monday

Talking about his dead child, again! Emotional self-management in relation to online mourning by Tobias Raun



Abstract
This paper explores a group of Dane’s motives for and experiences with using their personal Facebook profile to cope with the death of a close relative, based on extensive semi-structured media-go-along interviews. The focus of the article is on what I label emotional self-management, which came up repeatedly during the interviews as an integrated part of mourning online. It is argued that Facebook is used as an outlet for expressing thoughts and feelings that are often experienced as bypassed or silenced in off-line social interactions. However, these expressions of grief take place within a techno-social space, where one balances on a tight line between an allowed enactment of a private public self and a denigrated enactment of an oversharing, too transgressive intimate self. One is allowed to mourn but not excessively. In trying to balance sharing but not oversharing it is argued that the interviewees engage in continous dialog with multiple internal and external others.

Contents

Introduction
Methodological premises and approach
Having a space to express your feelings
Grief and self-management on Facebook
A middle region that encourages a continuum of selves
Haunted by the phantom figure of the oversharing Facebook user
Exit: Universalizing and aestheticizing loss

 


 

Introduction

I do perhaps have the need to write something several times during a month, or even a couple of times during a week. But then I think to myself, oh no, I have to be careful not to let it get out of hand, I mean to avoid the “now he writes something about that dead child, again!” (interview, Christian [1] discussing his use of Facebook to cope with the death of his daughter).

Facebook is not just a place where we share our happy moments and success but also mourn close as well as distant others. One might argue that this is one of the reasons why Facebook recently supplemented the “like button” with additional icons, among others the icon of a sad face crying [2]. As several researchers have noted death and mourning have become integrated into and imbricated with digital media [3] with Facebook as “the preferred venue for online mourning” [4]. This has given rise to an evolving body of research on especially online peer grief support groups, memorialized profiles and R.I.P. sites. It is here argued that the-se groups/profiles/sites enable commemorative communities of mourning and re-membrance, and function as therapeutic resources (Frost, 2014; Getty, et al., 2011; Brubaker, et al., 2013; Kern, et al., 2013; Church, 2013; Hård Af Segerstad and Kasperowski, 2015; Christensen and Sandvik, 2015; Klastrup, 2015; Marwick and Ellison, 2012; DeGroot, 2014). What is predominant within this field of study is textual, content analyses of postings and interactions, hence a “scant understanding in media studies of what these new cultures of memory mean for people existentially”, of their “implication in people’s lives” [5]. This paper turns to the existential dimension by exploring a group of Danish personal Facebook profiles to cope with the death of a close relative. The primary point of departure was the thoughts and feelings of the interviewees as they were communicated to me in semi-structured interviews, while actual postings and feedback received serve merely as a backdrop.

The focus of this paper is what I label emotional self-management, which came up repeatedly, explicitly and implicitly, during the interviews as an integrated part of mourning through one’s personal Facebook profile. The interviewees talked extensively about the difficult balancing act between wanting and needing to share the traumatic experience of losing a close relative and trying to make sure that their postings were not too much, too explicit or too self-exposing. Trying to describe this balancing act I draw on the writings on self-presentation and self-management by Goffman (1959), Meyrowitz (1985), Hogan (2010), Marshall (2010), and Marwick (2012). However, by adding emotional to the issues of self-management I want to forefront what is more implicit in the before mentioned theorists’ writing: The managing or scripting of especially emotional expressions and content. I define emotion as something people express about the feelings they have, and as something that can be and is distributed and exchanged, not least by social and technological means [6]. Grief is not a one-dimensional emotional phenomenon but may involve diverse emotions such as anger, despair, hostility, fear and guilt. Grief can also be conceptualized as a social phenomenon, influenced by social structure and group norms [7].

Emotional self-management (although not labeled as such) has been the subject of a few studies in relation to mourning online in relation to specifically designated memorial sites/groups (Marwick and Ellison, 2012; Döveling, 2017, 2015a, 2015b), focusing on the textual interaction (both quantitative and qualitative). One study has been conducted based on a questionnaire identifying general attitudes towards sharing emotional expressions of grief and remembrance on Facebook (Sabra, 2017). Contrary to these studies, this article addresses the process of emotional self-management as they are experienced by those using Facebook for bereavement and commemoration. Hence, I am interested in what the personal Facebook profile, according to the interviewees, offers in relation to coping with a lost relative. This article explores the following questions: What kinds of negotiations with self and others are in play when expressions of grief becomes part of a personal profile, which primary purpose is self-presentation, broadcast to a diverse audience, that is not necessarily bound by the experience of loss or proximity to the deceased? In other words, what are the encouragement and discouragement of Facebook as a techno-social space? In trying to conceptualize this dynamic negotiation process I draw on dialogical studies on the multi-voiced self, hence the notion of internal and external others (Aveling, et al., 2015; Marková, 2006).

 

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Methodological premises and approach

My interest in this field of study is prompted by my own experience of loss (my mother died three years ago), and my immediate urge to post about it on Facebook. I have also actively made use of my own situated position when conducting the interviews in order to create trust, making interviewees feel less exposed or objectified. I place this study within the interdisciplinary field of digital ethnography, wherein attention is paid to the status and meaning of digital media and technologies as part of, and hence inseparable from, the everyday. Of prime concern is how ‘the digital has become part of the material, sensory and social worlds we inhabit’ [8]. I attend to the thoughts, feelings and sensory categories through which the interviewees communicate and give value to mourning on Facebook.

I have conducted extensive (approximately two hours) semi-structured interviews with eight people, who have used Facebook actively in their mourning process. The interviewees were recruited via posting a request on my own Facebook profile, and through snowball sampling by encouraging others to post on their profile and in relevant groups (e.g., a group for infant death and in a group for relatives of ALS patients). I have refrained from interviewing people that I knew in advance. I have anonymized the interviewees by giving them different names (all chosen among the 20 most common names in Denmark and somehow relatable to their actual names) and not stating their exact profession or work place. Although the number of participants was limited, this study offers unique in-depth knowledge of some of the individual negotiation processes that take place when mourning through one’s personal Facebook profile. Regarding representation, there is a certain level of diversification in relation to age (24 to 53 years old), social status (from a sales assistant to a university professor), lost kin (child, sibling and parent) and time of death (from one year to 10 years ago). The large majority of participants were women.

The interviews were loosely structured after an interview guide covering: 1) the interviewee’s general use of online media and Facebook; 2) the lost relative and their grieving proces; 3) the postings on Facebook regarding the lost relative; 4) comments and feedback received; and 5) the effects of using Facebook to share information on/feelings about the deceased relative. The interviews took place at a location chosen by them (often their homes or a nearby cafe) where they, on my request, brought a computer/tablet, hence the interviews were conducted as a media-go-along, where we looked at their Facebook profile, postings and online interactions together while talking [9]. By actively engaging with Facebook in the interview the users’s memory of postings — not least motivations, feelings or experiences attached to these — were (re)activated.

In the following I outline the experienced possibilities and benefits of using the personal Facebook profile as a site of mourning, while afterwards turning to the experienced obstacles and difficult balancing act.

 

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Having a space to express your feelings

Yesterday I lost my dear father [...] I am shocked to the core. (posting by Charlotte [10], 14 September 2011)

When losing her father Charlotte felt a strong urge to make a post on Facebook about it. She explained to me that she was traumatized by his death and wanted to scream it out to the whole world, hence the post stating that she was “shocked to the core”. She repeated the line (“shocked to the core”) during the interview, telling me that it summed up how she felt at the time. Although she had not yet seen other people make posts related to death, she turned to Facebook because she had the need to “let the whole world know what had just happened to me, that my world would never be the same again” (interview, Charlotte). Facebook seemed like an obvious and perfect channel for her outlets because it was a familiar media, something she used in her everyday life. As also pointed out by Marwick and Ellison Facebook is “an effective platform” as it “allows people to express grief and mourn with friends in a familiar setting” [11]. Furthermore, the semi-publicness of Facebook made it an especially suitable channel, as it assured that the death of her father as well as her feelings about it would not go unnoticed but be cemented in digital text and communicated to a broader public.

One might argue that to make death and mourning visible to a wider public is challenging a notion of these as private and disenfranchised matters. In pre-modern and traditional societies death was a collective event, embedded in comprehensive communal and collective imaginings, with the community and the priest acting as major authorities [12]. From late nineteenth throughout most of the twentieth century death was disembedded from the local community and became professionalized in a medical frame [13]. Death was secularized, compartmentalized and medicalized and made invisible. It was no longer the community or the priest that acted as the main authority but the doctor [14]. In a similar vein, mourning became “a morbid state which must be treated, shortened, erased” [15] — it became a painful and an awkward reminder of death [16]. Hence, death and mourning became private and secular matters that one should not show publicly. Some might say that this is still the case today, not least in an evangelical Lutheran Danish context, where death is hidden away behind closed doors and something that most of us witness quite infrequently over the course of our lives [17].

The interviewees expressed how they still saw in their off-line life experience death as ‘forbidden’, and as something many are “reluctant to deal with” (interview, Hanne [18]). As Hanne noted: “although we meet death a lot in film and media our own death is still, on an existential level, very much taboo” (interview, Hanne). Hanne was here speaking on behalf of her personal as well as professional experiences as a nurse working with terminally ill people. The interviewees experienced that people refrained from asking about their losses, even though they explicitly had expressed a need to talk about it. As Charlotte stated: “I missed that people would ask me more about it, yes, that is for sure, and I prepared the grounds for it but there were no questions asked” (interview, Charlotte). Camilla [19] experienced that many people just “pretended as if nothing had happened” right after the death of her sister, and her explanation is that people “don’t dare to” and that they “don’t know how to deal with it”. Before experiencing loss herself she did not know either “what to say or do” (interview, Camilla). Camilla was suggesting that we might culturally be in need of a language and ways in which to approach death, even if institutional initiatives such as the hospice movement and the idea of palliative care have developed self-help practices and an extended psychological vocabulary around death and grieving [20]. Likewise, Hanne and Charlotte also talk about a lack of “rituals” concerning death, which makes people “fumbling and uneasy” (interview, Hanne).

Silence, awkwardness and a sense of bewilderment in off-line social interactions was what urged the interviewees to turn to Facebook to manifest and express their grief. As documented in other research, many turn to online spaces because of a need for social sharing and to compensate for missing support off-line (Döveling, 2015a; Christensen and Sandvik, 2015; Hård Af Segerstad and Kasperowski, 2015).

Facebook offers a social forum to express a grief that the interviewees often experienced as being passed over in silence in their off-line social interactions. Christian labeled Facebook a “lectern” where people “cannot stop me”, whereas in other social gatherings “there is always the consideration whether to say something about my dead child or not” (interview, Christian). Christian told me that his need to talk about his dead daughter on Facebook was even greater than talking about his living son, because as he explained:

when I teach or when I am together with my colleagues or in any other everyday context I can always tell people about my son [...] but there are only few people for whom it comes natural that you talk about your dead child.

Writing about his deceased daughter on Facebook became an almost defiant insistence:

I want to be allowed to talk about it. Death has become such a taboo so it is also an urge to put death on the agenda. (interview, Christian)

Facebook was used as a way to break the experienced silence around death by making it a (semi-)public matter, re-inscribing death and mourning as a social and collective event. As noted by Walter, et al. with interactive social media grief becomes more public, and mourning re-emerges as a communal activity and group experience [21].

Like the previously common practice of “wearing black clothing” or a “black armband”, Facebook enabled Hanne to announce her bereavement, to let people know that she felt like “a wounded animal” and receive supportive responses (interview, Hanne). However, this did not, in the interviewees’ experiences, spill over into their off-line social lives, easing an off-line dialog about their losses with their Facebook friends.

For many of the interviewees making a post related to and grieving the deceased stemmed from a need to express and share one’s emotions:

I was totally overwhelmed, I mean — I had all of these feelings inside of me, sitting at home alone, packing because I am moving in with my boyfriend — and where am I to place all of these [feelings], well, they have to go somewhere, and then Facebook is a fantastic medium for it, therefore I am like, well let me just put them [all the feelings inside] here, and then I will get some response. (interview, Maria) [22]

Maria described what motivated her to post a photo of a letter that she found from her deceased brother. However, feeling emotionally overwhelmed both encouraged and discouraged interviewees to post on Facebook. As Anna [23] remarked:

I don’t post on the days where her [a deceased infant daughter] death makes my heart ache really, really badly. I never ever post on Facebook when I feel that way about anything. I have far too many friends — and besides my aunt doesn’t need to know. (interview, Anna)

But Anna nevertheless perceived Facebook as a space where she could “tell things that I might not talk so much about in reality,” hence it seemed easier and more frictionless to make a post about her deceased daughter than to talk about her at the Christmas dinner. As she stated:

It takes more of an effort to tell it to someone who you know doesn’t want to hear it. It requires that you consider how you say it and consider how to receive what is and is not replied — I don’t have to here [on Facebook].

Having an overhearing audience became crucial, thus Anna knew that people read her posts, and it became a way to let them know that her daughter was not forgotten and that she still mourns her, even if some close relatives cannot talk about it or ask her about it off-line. As she noted:

I do not feel the need to tell him [a particular family member] — but I feel a need for him to know that she is still a strong presence. (interview, Anna)

 

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Grief and self-management on Facebook

The interviewees talked about self-censuring or self-monitoring that for most of them were an integrated part of expressing grief on Facebook. When Charlotte made her first post declaring how shocked she was about the death of her father, she was immediately struck by feelings of insecurity:

And then I just pressed the bottom and I thought ohhhhhhhhhhhhh [screaming] — what have I done!! How are people going to react, what are they going to think about me? (interview, Charlotte)

Exposing one’s grief was experienced as a transgressive act, but then comments started to trickle in with condolences, which made her feel less vulnerable displaying her emotions. These doubts and negotiations around what and how to share personal information and feelings correlate with the self-management that many researchers have argued is an integrated part of SNSs. As noted, SNSs “are dedicated specifically to forming and managing impressions” [24]. Marwick argued, that SNS users “engage in self-conscious identity construction to manage impressions, taking the real and potential audience into account” [25]. Online self-monitoring relates to internalizing the practice of social surveillance, trying to maintain a desired balance between publicity and seclusion, and what is accepted or unaccepted behavior [26].

Goffman (1959) argued that the self is a dramaturgic effect, a performance, and that an integrated part of self-presentation is “information control” [27]. When appearing before others frontstage an individual works hard to present oneself favorable in relation to the social role that one is trying to embody while also trying to control the impression others receive, hiding incongruities or less flattering backstage personality traits or actions (including rehearsals of how to act onstage) [28]. However, there is a significant difference between the face-to-face situations that Goffman describes where one can manage one’s performance according to different social arenas and specific audiences and the mediated communication that takes place in one’s personal Facebook feed, characterized by context collapse, where people from different social settings, classes and cultures coexist [29]. Context collapse entails that Facebook users cannot vary their self-presentation based on context and audience, altering the way they speak and the subjects they speak about based on status difference and friendship strength. The online self-presentation figures as data sent to a third party (Facebook) for distribution, and the presenter does not continually monitor these data as an audience is receiving it, and cannot fully know the audience nor see their reactions [30]. The user might intentionally invite context collapse by letting various contexts come together (context collusion) or these different social environments can unintentionally and unexpectedly come crashing into each other, violating the user’s sense/feeling of privacy (context collisions) [31]. In relation to the interviewees context collapse was never a matter of context collisions as they were aware of a large and diverse overhearing audience. However, it was hardly a matter of context collusions either as reaching out to a large and diverse audience was done with caution, wanting support but fearing social rejection.

Impression management is at stake when the interviewees negotiated expressions of grief in relation to the self-presentation that they had been giving of themselves through their other postings/interactions on Facebook. As Maria remarked, “there needs to be some kind of connection” (interview, Maria). Likewise, Charlotte felt as if she had given herself and others the impression (in her use of Facebook) that she was “the happy bouncy ball”, which therefore partly clashed with or prevented her from posting too long and too often about her mourning process (interview, Charlotte). How and what to post was also negotiated in relation to the context collapse of a multiple, yet known audience. Charlotte’s Facebook friends included some of her colleagues, whom she referred to as “tough cookies”, that were very opinionated about exposing oneself personally on Facebook, and she therefore could not help being “preoccupied with what they will think about me” (interview, Charlotte). Charlotte’s postings on mourning had therefore increasingly moved somewhere else — to a Facebook site that she had created related specifically to the process of mourning. Although this page was visible to everybody (contrary to her personal Facebook profile) she felt less restricted and more comfortable making posts concerning death and mourning here, because as she noted: “Those who like the page they want to read about stuff like that, and then I’m certain that I don’t spam anyone” (interview, Charlotte). People were only notified of new posts if they had shown an interest in the subject through “liking” the page. Likewise, Anna explained to me that she started to blog in 2007, almost immediately after her daughter’s passing (one year before entering Facebook), and that she was more “honest” and outspoken here than she had ever been on Facebook. Through blogging she connected with other bereaved parents, and felt comfortable sharing her feelings and thoughts on her own grieving process. When she later started using Facebook she listed her blog on her profile, but suddenly became aware of a new and expanding group of readers, which made her feel uneasy: “It wasn’t something that all and sundry should read”, hence it was only meant for other bereaved parents. A themed blog or Facebook page/group encouraged a more segregated audience, bound by common interest or experience, which made these sites seem as more “safe” environments where one was allowed to speak more openly, even if they were more publicly accessible.

Impression management (hence managing the context collapse) can also take place through privacy settings, however, none of the interviewees segregated their ‘friends’ using Facebook’s automatized system, blocking some people from seeing certain kind of posts. Consequently, impression management happened elsewhere and took other forms. As Anna told me, filtering took place when receiving a friend request:

Then I think to myself — is this someone, who can know about [name of the deceased daughter]? [...] Do I want to share it with them? (interview, Anna)

Impression management was also conducted by the interviewees through ‘polysemy’ and ‘social steganography’, obscuring or restricting access to content by limiting access to meaning [32]. When Hanne posted an old photo of her deceased father in front of a tree in Paris, it hinted to a specific event in which she for the first time felt that he was there for her as her dreams of making a life for herself in France fell apart. Hence, the picture suggested a notion of her father as a solid tree, and family itself as a tree of life. As Hanne stated in relation to the image:

I want to post something that holds a kind of depth and symbolic significance and speaks to those who knows what is there, but which only a few in reality is able to decipher.

It was a matter of “telling something without telling something”, a need to write one’s history but without explicating it. (interview, Hanne)

 

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A middle region that encourages a continuum of selves

Deciding what to post and when is an ongoing impression management, that cannot be grasped with Goffman”s simplified categories of frontstage and backstage as they do not account for the way in which Facebook merges different audiences, situations, private and public behaviors. As Meyrowitz pointed out a new media landscape (in his case TV) offered a “rearrangement of the social stages on which we play our roles and a resulting change in our sense of ‘appropriate behavior’” [33]. Meyrowitz suggested the concept of a “sidestage” view or a “middle-region” behaviour to characterize the merging of previously distinct situations and public spheres and its resulting effects [34]. The middle-region is “a new public style”, partly frontstage and partly backstage, but without the extremes of them both, an extension of the front region but allowing more backstage activities and subjects to be visible as they also become harder to hide [35]. The personal Facebook profile can be characterized as a middle region, where the interviewees negotiated and displayed a continuum of selves: The public self, the public private self and the transgressive intimate self [36]. These selves ranged from a mere frontstage, official self to a more middle-region self with some sort of exposure of the individual’s life and emotions to a more backstage self, motivated by “temporary emotion” [37]. However, before and while the interviewees enacted any of these selves, they engaged in what could be labeled a self-reflexive dialogue with multiple internal and external others. Drawing on dialogical research the self could be understood as constituted by a multiplicity of dynamic, interacting voices that continuously come together in an internal dialogue [38].

When Christian several times during the interview talked about himself using third-person pronouns (“Ohh no, now he writes about his dead child again”), he critically parodied the voice of generalized others, and yet he was also voicing an ongoing internal dialogue about his own Facebook practice, and his concerns about if and when his writing about his deceased daughter got “out of hand” (interview, Christian). We constantly position ourselves with respect to physical or symbolically co-present others, which also includes inner-others or ‘the third party’ within [39]. Hence, emotional self-management was not just a negotiation between oneself and external others (the vast, diverse, and known group of Facebook friends), but also between multiple internalized others. The multiple internalized others were comprised of imagined or generalized others as well as traditions, institutions, friends or colleagues that spoke through the self as “a continuation of previous dialogues, whether in terms of particular positions, attitudes, contents and contexts” [40].

In the interviews the ultimate other figures as an over-sharing, too emotionally expressive and vulnerable Facebook user, whom they did not want to turn into. The interviewees expressed a need to share but a reluctance towards oversharing — a paradox that seems to be at the center of social media. On the one hand sharing is what users persistently are encouraged to and rewarded for in Web 2.0’s privileging of interactivity and participation [41]. As van Dijck argues, Facebook’s ideology of sharing has set a standard for other platforms and for the ecosystem as a whole, thus sharing is the general imperative and the norm online [42]. On the other hand the act of sharing is always already inscribed in and followed by subtle social regulations and normative evaluations, where the possibility of oversharing, offering ‘too much information’, is a prevalent risk [43]. To overshare is to expose private matters in a public sphere, thus oversharing reproduces a strict and traditional private/public dichotomy, and is consistently conceptualized as a negative social practice, commonly employed to de-legitimate various social actors and actions through a process of moral evaluation [44].

In the interviews oversharing was attached to different people and practices. It was Charlotte’s friend who also lost a parent but who “wallows too much in it” and who’s Facebook posts “add too many details” (interview, Charlotte). It is Maria’s acquaintance from school who was “very upfront with” her depressions, “exposing herself” and using Facebook as “a therapist” (interview, Maria). It was the Facebook friend who lost her grown son and that Birgitte [45] has seen post prefabricated virtual cards about stars and heaven years after his passing (interview, Birgitte). Or it was the unspecified friend who continuously wrote that his “body hurts again” as if appealing to others for pity (interview, Christian). What was pinpointed as the problem by the interviewees was that these people shared too much, over too long a timespan and that their posts were perceived as too distasteful.

The oversharing external others evoked strong feelings in interviewees. Charlotte talked about how watching other people, like her friend, share the “the whole truth” without “filtering” makes her “yuck!” [signaling suffocation]. Posts like these repulsed her: “I think it becomes too unreflective”. This encouraged her to edit her own status updates, making sure that they were nothing like that:

I would like to show that I am on a higher level [...] that I am above it [she laughs as if slightly embarrassed] [...] I would like to appear as someone who to a certain extent are on top of things. (interview, Charlotte)

Likewise, Maria mentioned how the postings by the girl suffering from depression were “too much”, an “indecent exposure”, which might make other people perceive her as “crazy” whereas she herself thought of her as in need of help. Any of these (being crazy or in need of help) were highly undesirable impressions that Maria worked hard in her own self-presentation to prevent people from reading into her expressions of grief: “Nobody should ever think of me that way” (interview, Maria). She was therefore very careful about what she posted, trying to steer away from anything that might position her as “weak” or “crazy”. As she noted:

When I make a post about my big sister or brother I have spent a really long time writing it and thinking about it ... trying to present myself honestly but without exposing myself. (interview, Maria)

In a similar vein, Birgitte objected to the aesthetics of prefabricated virtual cards — and the age-long postings:

I hope that’s not what people see in me. I hope that I’m on another level or I don’t know, or somewhere else in the process. (interview, Birgitte)

In line with Marshall’s conceptualizations, the interviewees could be said to position themselves in opposition to a transgressive intimate self, hence mourning through one’s personal Facebook profile must be within the limits of a private public self.

 

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Haunted by the phantom figure of the oversharing Facebook user

The figure of the oversharing other appeared in the interviews not only as an actual or unspecified external other, but also as inner-others. As argued by Aveling, et al.: “Even those people (or groups) who the Self sees as radically ‘other’ [...] are inner-Others and thus part of the Self. They are positions in opposition to which the Self defines itself” [46]. The phantom figure of the over-sharing, too emotionally expressive and vulnerable Facebook user constitutes a boundary that the interviewees constantly positioned themselves in opposition to but which they were also continuously in danger of becoming as they shared their emotions and experiences of bereavement online. The interviewees had not explicitly experienced negative responses on Facebook but to be open and expressive about one’s loss without being “too much” was experienced as a particularly difficult balancing act. This might come as no surprise taken into consideration that previous research pointed to an “astonishing level of consensus” among Danish focus group participants regarding illness and death being unwanted information [47]. Continued and detailed reporting on these issues was considered illegitimate and inappropriate [48]. In a recent study on Danish netiquette, in relation to mourning and memorialization, based on questionnaires: The general attitude is that grief was kept within the close confinements of the family [49]: The individual Facebook user is allowed to inform the network of his/her state of mind and emotional role as mourner, but in a regulated manner assuring the expression is neither presented as morbid or disturbing [50]. Hence, some emotional expressions seemed to “stick” more to a notion of oversharing or to exposing too much of one’s private self. As Maria remarked:

When you are left with a grief like that, you don’t want — well, I don’t want people perceiving me as a weak person but it is also okay that they know that I am sad, so it is a compromise because I don’t see myself as weak either. (interview, Maria)

Or as Charlotte extrapolated:

I have a need to express myself [...] Kind of like ‘look here I am and this is how it is for me’ — that matters, presumably a great deal actually [a short pause], yes, but at the same time there is this little sensing device sitting there — well, it is a fine line in order not to be too much. (interview, Charlotte)

When Charlotte discussed this balancing act she kept returning to her Facebook friend who shared too much, which suggests that this friend served both as an actual figure, whom she distanced herself from, while also being a phantom figure that haunted Charlotte’s own Facebook practice. Christian also explicitly related his own postings to the postings by the unspecified other with the aching body, explaining how his own expressions of grief were not an appeal for pity:

I guess that is what I am uneasy about, so I try not to turn it into a ‘oh, you should feel sorry for me because my child is dead — I am so sad, so please comfort me’. (interview, Christian)

Birgitte was also negotiating her own online mourning practice through the friend with the deceased son, not least in relation to what is an acceptable timeframe. On the one hand Birgitte suggested that it was inappropriate to keep making posts, but on the other hand the continuous posting was justifiable “because it’s her son”. Birgitte herself was reluctant to keep on posting because she did not feel entitled to continuous grief:

Well, I think that I’ve had the feeling that because we weren’t married and because we hadn’t known each other longer [they knew each other for five years] — well, I am concerned with what other people will think, and it is this psychological process that I am trying to work my way through, but I think that it kind of gets a substantial hold of me because there is an outside world [on Facebook]. (interview, Birgitte)

What seems to be at stake here is that individual voices coexist and are interwoven with collective voices [51], negotiating the entitlement to mourn in relation to one’s relation to the deceased and the time that has passed since their death. As Charlotte stated:

I experienced that it was okay [to post] for a certain period [but] three and a half year has passed, and it has become embarrassing [...] now, one needs to have moved on. (interview, Charlotte)

The social consensus about how and when one needs to have “moved on” tied into time and culturally specific notions of mourning, which increasingly was characterized in psychological terms as healthy/unhealthy mourning. In other words, mourning was no longer perceived as a religious matter, but understood and dominated by views theoretically informed by psychology and psychiatry [52]. Today grief is no longer perceived as something that one is to overcome, but rather as something one learns to live with. However, there are still strong normative attachments connected to grieving; it must not threaten the individual’s state of health or social functional capacity [53]. As argued by Jacobsen and Kofod, mourning is now psychologized as either healthy/normal with the potentially of leading to personal growth or as complex/pathological (recently included as a psychiatric diagnose) in need of treatment [54]. Balancing these two has become part of a self-reflexive practice where the be-reaved monitors their own grieving process [55].

 

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Exit: Universalizing and aestheticizing loss

In this paper I have argued that the interviewees used the personal Facebook profile as a place of mourning because it was a familiar setting, that allowed grief to become part of everyday life. The interviewees tried to cope with an emotionally distressful situation by making posts, hence Facebook was used as “a lectern”, an outlet for expressing thought and feelings that were often bypassed or silenced in their off-line social interaction. The semi-publicness of a Facebook profile allowed the death and memory of a close relative, as well as the feelings of the interviewees, not to go unnoticed but to be recognized and supported. However, mourning through one’s personal Facebook profile was different than mourning through a closed group or a specially designated site as it entailed a different kind of emotional self-management. A closed/designated group/site gave the participants a feeling of safety, of constant and instant access to a community of like-minded others with shared experiences [56]. Mourning through a personal Facebook profile needed to be adjusted according to the style and content of what the interviewees otherwise posted and with a multiple, yet known audience in mind. The personal Facebook profile could be considered a middle region, partly frontstage and partly backstage, where one was expected to enact a private public self, not a too official public self and not a too transgressive intimate self. The hardship of death and grief tended to be unwanted or “too much” information, hence by sharing these emotions the interviewees risked oversharing. Trying to balance the need and wish to share but not overshare the interviewees engaged in a continuous dialog with multiple internal and external others.

The suggested solution to the balancing act of sharing but not oversharing, enacting healthy mourning but not unhealthy/pathological mourning was to universalize and aestheticize loss. As expressed by Christian, the personal experiences and feelings of loss needed to be put “into perspective” (interview, Christian). Or as Hanne told me, she was preoccupied with “how to express it on a level, which makes it universally humane and interesting” (interview, Hanne). Generalization was used as a way to try to avoid content to be too personal and emotionally expressive. Or as several of the interviewees put it (although in slightly different wordings): “It’s okay that the postings are personal but they must not be private” (interview, Hanne, Charlotte, Christian, Maria). The personal was here positioned as a kind of middle ground between the public and the private (hence a private public self). However, the personal was only justifiable as long as it became relatable for others. As Charlotte stated: “I think that I have tried to phrase things in a way so that others can see themselves reflected in it, so that it’s not just mine” (interview, Charlotte). Likewise, Maria highlighted how she tried to express her loss in such a way that others “can relate to the emotion”, or can “relate to it with other emotions or other situations” (interview, Maria).

The interviewees expressed a desire for others to be able to “connect” with the processes and emotions described, resulting in feeling recognized and less alone when comments highlighted that this was happening (interview, Charlotte, Hanne and Maria). However, it also created a sense of meaningfulness and builds self-confidence when others found one’s post “insightful” (interview, Christian). As Hanne remarked:

The thought that I can share something which preoccupies me and which also enables other people to get new thoughts and perspectives or encourage them to reflect on their own gives me a sense of purpose, making it meaningful for me to spend time on it [sharing things on Facebook]. (interview, Hanne)

What the interviewees call for is what Payne labeled as a subjective registration effect, which means “both an effect of having one’s impact or contribution registered, and the effect of one’s subjectivity registered“ [57]. The need to communicate one’s grief and to have these emotions registered was often interlinked with an attentiveness towards the aesthetics of the post. As Charlotte stated: “I like to think about the right wording” (interview, Charlotte). Or as Christian put it:

It is words and emotions that I am preoccupied with and I can express that on Facebook [...] But it is not just a matter of expressing the emotions, it also has to be framed a little creatively, at least that is what I am trying to. I guess it is an artistic or creative need to express myself (interview, Christian).

Hence, expressing grief on Facebook was often implicated in an aesthetic negotiating of both content (what to write) and form (how to write it). The posts included quotes from famous writers, but often they were written by the mourning Facebook user themselves. When posting about her deceased brother Maria told me that she tried to construct it as “a poem or something like that — it has to be beautifully written” (interview, Maria). The attempt to aestheticize one’s loss was a way to position oneself within a symbolic system of social and cultural capital while also serving the purpose of giving meaning and symbolic value to a death that might have seemed meaningless and incomprehensible. End of article

 

About the author

Tobias Raun is an associate professor in communication studies at Roskilde University in Denmark.
E-mail: tobiasra [at] ruc [dot] dk

 

Notes

1. Christian is in his fifties and has lost a daughter. At the time of the interview (3 March 2015) she has been dead for 10 years. He works with coaching. All quotes appearing in this paper are my translations from Danish.

2. The like button is a feature where users can like content or pages. It was activated in February 2009. The like button was upgraded in February 2016 to include icons of happy, sad or surprised faces as well as a heart signaling: “haha,” “wow,” “sad,” and “angry,” and “love”. However, these additional buttons were not implemented at the time of the interview, and they are therefore not discussed.

3. Lagerkvist, 2013, p. 15.

4. Ebert, 2014, p. 37.

5. Lagerkvist, 2013, p. 10.

6. Garde-Hansen and Gorton, 2013, pp. 30–31.

7. Döveling, 2015b, p. 109.

8. Pink, et al., 2016, p. 7.

9. Jørgensen, 2016, p. 39.

10. Charlotte is in her fifties and had lost her father. At the time of the interview (20 March 2015) her father had been dead for three years. She works as a therapist.

11. Marwick and Ellison, 2012, p. 395.

12. Jacobsen, et al., 2013, pp. 29–30, 32.

13. Jacobsen, et al., 2013, pp. 32–33.

14. Jacobsen and Kofod, 2015, p. 252; Jacobsen, et al., 2013, p. 30.

15. Ariés, 1974, pp. 99–100.

16. Jacobsen and Kofod, 2015, pp. 252–253.

17. Wood and Williamson, 2003, p. 14.

18. Hanne is in her forties and lost her father. At the time of the interview (5 March 2015) her father had been dead for two years. She works in the healthcare system.

19. Camilla is in her thirties and had lost her mother and sister. At the time of the interview (26 March 2015) her mother had been dead for three years and her sister for a year. She works as a sales assistant.

20. Jacobsen and Kofod, 2015, p. 254.

21. Walter, et al., 2011, pp. 12–14.

22. Maria is in her twenties and had lost her brother and her sister. At the time of the interview (16 October 2015) her brother had been dead for two years and her sister for 10 years. She works within the service industry.

23. Anna is in her thirties and had lost an infant. At the same of the interview (6 March 2015) her daughter had been dead for nine years. She works as a teacher.

24. Rosenberg and Egbert, 2011, p. 2.

25. Marwick, 2012, p. 381.

26. Marwick, 2012, pp. 379, 384.

27. Goffman, 1959, p. 141.

28. Goffman, 1959, pp. 15, 7.

29. Marwick and Ellison, 2012, pp. 379, 381.

30. Hogan, 2010, p. 381.

31. Davis and Jurgenson, 2014, pp. 480–481.

32. Marwick and boyd, 2010, p. 123; Marwick and boyd, 2014, p. 1,058.

33. Meyrowitz, 1985, p. 4.

34. Meyrowitz, 1985, p. 5.

35. Meyrowitz, 1985, pp. 47–48.

36. Marshall, 2010, pp. 42–45.

37. Marshall, 2010, pp. 44–45.

38. Aveling, et al., 2015, p. 670.

39. Markovà 2006, pp. 131, 133.

40. Aveling, et al., 2015, p. 674; Markovà, 2006, p. 133.

41. Payne, 2015, p. 34.

42. van Dijck, 2013, pp. 45–46.

43. Payne, 2015, p. 15.

44. Hoffmann, 2009, pp. iii, 67.

45. Birgitte is in her fifties and had lost her partner. At the time of the interview (27 March 2015) he had been dead for one year. She works with socially marginalized people and communication.

46. Aveling, et al., 2015, p. 674.

47. Sørensen, 2013, p. 145.

48. Sørensen, 2013, p. 145; Jensen and Sørensen, 2013, p. 58.

49. Sabra, 2017, p. 34.

50. Sabra, 2017, p. 36.

51. Markovà, 2006, p. 128.

52. Jacobsen, et al., 2013, pp. 36–38.

53. Jacobsen and Kofod, 2015, pp. 259–260.

54. Jacobsen and Kofod, 2015, pp. 265–267.

55. Jacobsen and Kofod, 2015, p. 260.

56. Hård Af Segerstad and Kasperowski, 2015, p. 34.

57. Payne, 2015, p. 34.

 

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Editorial history

Received 8 April 2017; accepted 12 October 2017.


Copyright © 2017, Tobias Raun.

“Talking about his dead child, again!” Emotional self-management in relation to online mourning
by Tobias Raun.
First Monday, Volume 22, Number 11 - 6 November 2017
http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/7810/6559
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v22i111.7810





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