Navigating Grief in the Age of Social Media

A sad emoji. Image courtesy of Creative Commons

In 2015, Kate Bowler, a history professor at Duke Divinity School, then 35 and the mother of a young son, was diagnosed with stage IV cancer.

After getting the news, she wept. She prayed. Then she called her husband.

“I waited until he arrived so we could wrap our arms around each other and say the things that must be said. I have loved you forever. I am so grateful for our life together. Please take care of our son,” she wrote in a New York Times opinion piece a few months after her initial diagnosis. Then he walked me from my office to the hospital to start what was left of my new life.”

Bowler was not ready for what came next.

The torrent of responses to her story included, in addition to empathy, detailed questions and advice: was she eating right, was she spiritually grounded, was she trying hard enough?

Historian and author Kate Bowler. Photo by Rebecca Ames

“I had never really known what it felt like to be a problem to be solved,” she wrote.

Bowler went on to write a book about her experiences, entitled “Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved.” She also launched a podcast in which guests share their own perspective on lessons garnered from times of woe.

“There’s a failure of public language around suffering,” she said. “I think in the spiritual community we have a lot of fear.”

Perhaps in answer to that failure, our age of nonstop communication has brought an increasingly rich array of resources, both online and off, for those who wrestle with grief, suffering and loss. At a time when trust in traditional authorities like the church and its clergy is strikingly low, young adults and others are employing new ways to support each other when bad news or tragedy arrives.

Lennon Flowers. Photo by Jessica
Ross, courtesy of The Dinner Party

Lennon Flowers lost her mother while a college student. By the time she started to open up in her mid-20s about her loss, she had spent years “keeping my hours full with things that weren’t cancer,” she said.

That experience led her to take a central role in creating the Dinner Party, a nonprofit that recruits hosts who bring young people together to talk about grief over potluck dinners. Launched officially in January 2014, Flower’s site now boasts about 300 hosts.

While the grief-gathering nonprofit has a user-friendly website, its purpose is to draw attention to in-person get-togethers tailored for a generation that grew up online but craves the intimacy of in-person connection.

“We realized what we were really out to do was cultural,” she said. “What I love about this moment is that there are a lot of voices pushing back about silence and stigmas and mythologies around grief and loss.”

In conversations over informal meals, participants find that their feelings of sadness are accepted without judgment. They also realize that there’s no time limit on pain and mourning.

Many of the young people who come to the potlucks are often the first people among their friends to confront loss. “For other generations it’s less familiar to talk about your private life. We’re seeing them (young adults) reclaiming experiences and thoughts people had hidden behind closed doors,” Flowers said.

The Dinner Party is particularly sensitive to the need to provide venues for those in the LGBTQ community, people of color and other minorities. “It’s incredibly powerful to have people who share other sources of commonality,” said Flowers. “Grief and loss aren’t shared equally. There are communities where loss is endemic. We have not begun to touch the surface of that.”

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Source: Religion News Service