Opinion and Editorial

So far, yet so near

Sanchita Guha
Filed on April 10, 2021

Grief sharing on social networks lets us structure the feelings that earlier filled our minds without any outlet. Staying close, virtually, to someone who’s no longer there is a curious phenomenon

Much to my embarrassment, I found out the other day — from my post-millennial niece at a family gathering — that the praying hands emoji, which I’ve always used with my ‘RIP’ comments in response to Facebook or WhatsApp posts on bereavement, represents the side view of a casual high-five greeting. Dismayed exclamations of “What? No!” were followed by some quick Googling that revealed my niece might be right, though the Internet jury is still out on this one. It really is a matter of perspective, as with most things in the social media universe.

I’ve decided to continue seeing this emoji as hands joined in prayer and use it to acknowledge someone’s deep loss, though I may remain only on the periphery of understanding their grief. But my vocabulary of offering condolences will now definitely extend beyond “RIP”. The last thing I’d want is for my condolences to have an “Insta” quality to them, but they often end up being so, as interacting with someone’s grief is a very complex process and sometimes words fail us. What might be less than acceptable in the physical world passes for an adequate response in the digital world, as social networks allow us to inhabit that twilight zone where you can’t always tell the substance and the shadows apart.

The same freedom to engage or not to engage is also given to those sharing their grief — or memories of the ones they’ve lost — on social networks. I ask Dr Bedabrata Pain, former scientist at NASA, co-inventor of the CMOS digital imaging technology (used in most digital cameras these days), and award-winning filmmaker (director of Chittagong and executive producer of Amu), if he thinks social network posts are better than personal journal entries, as the latter are hard to share even if the writer sometimes yearns to. I also offer the analogy that a social media post allows one to be an actor on the stage, who has the freedom to acknowledge their audience or tune them out. “Yes. The best actors have to be very honest [while performing]; and social media, paradoxically, gives you that space to be very genuine,” says Bedabrata. “In the physical world, we can’t always express ourselves as we want to, as we know we may have to encounter some pushback; on a social network, we can be ourselves without being too concerned about that aspect.”

‘I dealt with Ishan’s death alone; now I give him to the world’

Bedabrata has written many posts about his elder son Ishan, who died in 2010, aged 16. The teenager, who lived in Los Angeles, could not survive severe burn injuries caused by a fire that started with a faulty electric clipper he was using to shave. The father’s posts have spanned a wide range: from the feeling of being devastated; to pride in his remarkably intelligent and empathetic son; to a scientific-philosophical analysis of how the passage of time has turned him from an actor to an observer in scenes from his own life when his firstborn was alive.

What do these posts do for the mind of the person putting them out, giving so much of themselves to the world? “Someday,” says Bedabrata, “psychologists will look at the whole process of social media posts, [where] you’re opening your heart to the whole world… When I write about Ishan, it’s about him, not about me. My posts are about who he was. A Harvard professor had said [the reason] why humans are so far ahead of apes is because of our collective intelligence. And Ishan had such logic, empathy, sense of justice — I look at his engagement with others, his contribution to that collective intelligence. It’s about encapsulating what he meant for us, for me, for the world.”

He recalls being both a father and a mother to Ishan. “When he was born, his mother was at film school, with a rigorous schedule.” His “life fell apart” after the fire accident and bereavement, hit harder by “a lack of empathy around me, just the opposite of what Ishan was”. His posts relive his elder son’s qualities, which he also sees in his younger son Vivan.

“In death, you celebrate life,” says the scientist-filmmaker. “So, on his birthday and his death anniversary, I try to write [online]. I dealt with Ishan’s death alone; now I give him to the world. A life has ended. Let’s understand that life… who he was, how he lived with humanity. Whether it makes a difference, I have no idea. Putting it out there is what’s important, though it does come from a place of grief.”

‘Someone somewhere reads my post, and sends a hug’

For Ishan’s mother Shonali Bose, the award-winning director of Amu, Margarita With A Straw, and The Sky Is Pink, her social media presence has sort of grown alongside the process of coping. “I had opened my FB page just before my son’s death. [Initially] my social media journey was with his hospitalisation, funeral, keeping people informed.”

Over time, the social network became “a very important mechanism for me to get comfort”, recalls Shonali. Her posts have sometimes been a cry for help; and she has been heard because the Internet never sleeps. “I could be in the US, and unable to call anyone, but someone somewhere reads my post, and sends a hug. That really feels wonderful.”

Her posts on Ishan from early 2011, a few months after his death, are a lot about mother-and-son moments or brother-and-brother moments, and the accompanying text is usually a little story infused with great humour. Her wit bolsters her determination to not put a lid on her loss and, instead, create something powerful with those memories. “Our society expects us to keep grief private and move on. But I decided to break this taboo — I’ve broken many taboos in my life,” says the filmmaker.

Her son’s indescribable death and the lawsuit that followed with the electric trimmer company — the verdict did not go in the family’s favour — could have swamped her with sorrow, and it did; but, in a way, Shonali took control of the grief rather than let it control her. This is expressed through some very candid posts. She recalls one written around Diwali 2010: “In the US, all you do [for this festival] is play cards and light diyas — no crackers allowed. In my childhood, Diwali was such fun, sharing [crackers] with other children. But now it was Diwali and Ishan wasn’t there. Then I remembered that, for Ishan, Diwali [in America] was no big deal. That made me laugh. So I wrote [on Facebook] about how Diwali made me cry and also made me come out of [missing Ishan]. I wrote honestly. I will not hold back anything, and try to sound courageous when I’m not.”

‘If someone matters to you, contact them yourself’

Her posts have allowed Shonali to keep a conversation going with a son who’s physically absent but still very much present in her life — this contradiction makes perfect sense in an era when people’s social media activities remain visible to all long after their death, their voices as clear as the day their posts and comments were written and published. Yet, though Facebook has given her comfort and Instagram is a necessary marketing platform for her profession, the filmmaker’s general opinion of social networks is that they’re “a big waste of time”. She does do her online social calls once every four-five months, usually when she’s waiting to board a flight.

I ask if she has ever been caught unawares by a bereavement in someone else’s life because she hadn’t been checking her news feed and that person had posted the news. “People who know me already know that I’m not going to notice it. I won’t feel bad if I miss someone else’s news. When I do visit others’ walls, I respond. But people need to go back to the old days; if someone matters to you, contact them yourself. I’m not on any WhatsApp group. If I find out later, I’m okay with that,” she replies.

She’s equally nonchalant about social network friends who put a sympathetic comment on her post about Ishan and then, perhaps, move on to something flippant almost immediately. “People have a lot going on in their lives, so it’s enough that they reached out and gave me a hug.”

What does annoy her, though, is “RIP”, because it’s the “fastest, most unthinking way to respond without really engaging with the post”. I confess to Shonali that I’ve often taken refuge in the three initials — supported by that disputed emoji — because I couldn’t articulate my feelings. “Then at least say, ‘Rest in peace’, or ‘May your mother rest in peace,’” she suggests, urging that we make more of an effort.

Bedabrata is kinder towards the “RIP” comments, saying, “People have difficulty dealing with grief. Sometimes, they really want to say something but they don’t know what to say. I take it not for those words, but for the sentiment underneath it.”

‘I’m learning more about my father through others’ responses’

In the eight years since she lost her father, social media have kept his memories “fresher” for Juhi Yasmeen Khan, CSR and charity initiative expert and consultant in the UAE, and founder of the JYK Group of Companies. Her father, Massarat Ahmed Khan, District Judge in Bijnor, India, had died a most extraordinary death, the kind perhaps we all dream of. Just a few days before his scheduled pacemaker operation, he practically saw his end coming — he asked his wife to read out a prayer for him, he lay down and raised his arms to seek divine blessings, and then he was gone peacefully. For Juhi, however, the news came like a bolt from the blue — she was in Dubai when her sister asked her to “go to India immediately”; she found out at the airport, from a telephone call, that her father was no more; and he was buried before she could reach India. The early burial, undertaken as per religious traditions, left her inconsolable and caused a misunderstanding and sadness with her mother, since she had requested her family in India to wait for her arrival from Dubai. Not being able to see him one last time sent her into a state of shock.

“I used to call my father every day; he knew everything about me. He was my mentor. After his death, I began dialling his number like a mad person; went to the graveyard, clung to his gravestone and talked to him,” says Juhi. She even decided she couldn’t live any longer — until she flew back to Dubai and saw her son waiting at the airport; he cried and gave her a hug and she knew she’d have to be there for him. Her fractured relationship with her mother was healed after Juhi dreamed of her father; in the dream, he asked her to reconcile with her mother. “As soon as I woke up, I got a call from my mother in Oman. Then we flew out to Oman and met her for my niece’s wedding there.”

It’s through her social networks on Facebook and WhatsApp that Juhi truly connects with her father, writing frequent posts addressing him, reading what extended family members and even strangers have to say about her father’s caring and philanthropic nature. “My daddy helped so many people in any way he could. Now they’re connecting about him through my posts. I’m learning a lot more about him through their responses. I see how big his heart was, because all of my siblings felt that they were his favourites, whereas I thought I was his favourite. My cousin, whom he treated as his son, writes about him with such high regard.”

Her father’s death also changed the course of her own life, steering her from fashion design to charity and corporate social responsibility. “I’m trying to continue his legacy; he was a very giving person,” she says. “He will be alive till I am alive. He lives in us.”

‘You’re not negotiating the reality of the loss’

Grief sharing on social media is now bona fide research material, with a thick stack of academic papers published on the subject. One such paper came in October 2016 from Jessica Blower, psychology honours student at the University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia. Presenting her research at an Australasian conference, she offered the suggestion that if a person was trying to come to terms with a loved one’s death, expressing that grief on a social network wouldn’t help.

“Basically, the deceased never die online; they remain alive forever on Facebook, so if you’re trying to negotiate your grief and realise you can’t get close to that individual, being able to do so on a daily basis on Facebook is contrary to what you’d expect,” said the researcher, as quoted in an ABC News blog. She herself had the grief-sharing urge when her beloved companion, her dog of 12 years, died. Others around her were going online with feelings about their bereavement, and Jessica felt she needed to do that, too. “I don’t know why, but I felt compelled to share that grief on Facebook, and I’m not one to share everything on Facebook. But it was as though I had to do something to show that it had a big impact on my life.”

Her interest piqued, she studied these posts and the individuals who published them. Her conclusion was that writing tributes addressing a dead family member or friend, as a way to keep the bond unbroken, wasn’t a very healthy practice, because then “you’re not negotiating the reality of the loss”.

Can these tributes, when posted often, also be interpreted as seeking attention? Shonali scoffs when I put this question to her, and replies, “Someone said I was doing it to gain sympathy and come across as a heroine when I began writing about Ishan. I hate being judged; I feel this is a big problem. If it bothers you, then stop going to their wall. Maybe they lost someone, and need the love and attention.”

(Sanchita is a journalist based in Kolkata, India.)

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