If you’ve had the misfortune of learning about someone who died abruptly and unexpectedly via social media, you may have been left with more questions than answers.
Facebook, Twitter and Instagram facilitate the fast spread of information. But, by custom, the details of many deaths are left hazy—often in ways that can compound trauma.
“A friend and former neighbor, someone I very much knew and liked endlessly, died of a brain aneurysm,” recalls one of a handful of friends who’d experienced this phenomenon. “The facts were known early, and they were not in dispute. She was known to a lot of people, loved by a lot of people, but for days the only information being passed on was that she had ‘died suddenly.’ Some posts even alluded to her not being in pain anymore. And when people asked ‘What happened?’ they were met with silence. And so I started reevaluating every interaction we’d ever had, thinking she had died by suicide.”
Eventually, he learned the truth: “I was oddly relieved. I was glad to know she hadn’t been in pain. And then I was angry that this information was kept secret. I think everyone was just trying to be respectful, but in being ‘respectful’ they actually caused pain. I saw posts by distant family members, and the wording implied they believed she had died by suicide.”
Another friend got to the point faster in his critique of vaguebooking.
“How many people do I know that have passed not from killing themselves, but who I thought killed themselves?” he said. “You don’t need to be specific-specific—for example, my uncle passed after a short hospital stay, not of Covid. So we said, ‘He passed away in his sleep after a brief illness’ so his friends would know that he didn’t die of Covid, and that he died peacefully.”
When someone is dead, the fact that they died of a cardiac event and not their own hand may not matter to some. But it’s human nature to wonder, says Jennifer Sweeton, a clinical psychologist and internationally recognized expert on trauma, anxiety and the neuroscience of mental health who owns a practice called Kansas City Mental Health Associates.
“When we are told about the death of a friend or loved one from another human being, we’re usually given some context about the death, including when it happened, the cause, etc.” she says. “It becomes a shared emotional experience with a narrative that helps us make sense of what has happened, and this social support, along with a sort of ‘story’ about what happened, facilitates healthy healing and closure.”Anyone who knows someone well enough to be emotionally impacted by their passing will naturally crave closure, she says.
“When we add mystery to loss, it can create a sense of unfinished business and confusion,” Sweeton says. “This, in turn, can exacerbate post-trauma symptoms, as we may begin to ‘fill in the gaps’ of the context surrounding the loss by assuming the worst about it.”
Filling in the gaps is a natural psychological phenomenon, Sweeton says, and our emotional state influences how we fill in those gaps. “After a death, it’s very common to fill in those gaps with terrible information that aligns with the pain and loss we’re feeling. This worsens the sense of loss we feel and makes loss even more traumatic.”
Unfortunately, this dynamic is unlikely to change any time soon, according to Dr. Anna Wagner, a research assistant in the School of Public Health at Bielefeld University in Germany. Wagner has published several scholarly articles on the subject, including “Do not Click ‘Like’ When Somebody has Died: The Role of Norms for Mourning Practices in Social Media.”
The norms dominating social media spaces are not entirely new, she says. They’re reflective of traditional norms evidenced in newspaper obituaries. Often, she says, the reason for sharing the news of a death but not disclosing details surrounding it is done out of convenience, as “an easy way to let others know and reach many people at once while at the same time avoiding a multitude of potentially stressful conversations.”
Wagner refers to a concept called the “hierarchy of legitimate mourners,” where people who were closest to the deceased have the most say in how information is disseminated. But, she says, there are conflicts when someone with a large social media platform who would otherwise fall lower on the hierarchy decides to get involved. Add in well-established “positivity bias” of social media and the embargo is almost airtight unless someone atop the hierarchy speaks up.
“If we look at all these aspects together, I think potential traumatization of others is not something those people posting the death announcements bear in mind or even think about,” Wagner says.
But they should, Sweeton says.
“While this may be an attempt to keep sensitive information private and mirrors how some obituaries are written, it can have some unintended psychological consequences for those reading social media posts,” Sweeton says. “On social media, we’re often left feeling completely alone with the news, with no immediate support and no additional information that would help us begin to process the loss. Although it is reasonable that families want privacy after loss, and it is important to be respectful when speaking of someone who just died, providing information about the context of the death, including the cause, can help everyone who knew the person begin to fully process the loss in a healthier manner. Additionally, being willing to disclose this information can help destigmatize death and the various causes of death, especially when mental illness contributed to the death.”