Grieving Publicly On Social Media

By Corinne Rose - 21Alive

October 31, 2013 Updated Oct 31, 2013 at 6:20 PM EDT

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (21Alive) -- "You have family all over the United States and friends all over the United States, it's easier to communicate with them without having to try to text a thousand people or get phone calls from 500 people," says Scott Thornsbury who lost his sister to breast cancer about three months ago.

42-year old Teresa posted almost daily updates on her Facebook page about her battle.

"She did it at the beginning and then I did it for her. I'd posted on mine, and you can tag people in your comments, so I would tag her in my comments. And then sometimes I'd just go on her page and just tell them that it was me posting. But she had days where as she started getting worse, she didn't like to be on the phone or whatever,” Thornsbury says.

And Scott found that Facebook updates were far more pragmatic than other ways of communicating.

"You answer the same question 500 times, it gets rough on people. And people just want to know, want you to know they care. So this was a good forum for you to be able to do that? Yup. And I could just write it and they didn't have to see me cry in person,” Thornsbury says.

But how do you know when posting status updates about illness or a death on social media crosses a line?

We asked clinical psychologist Dr. Stephen Ross. He emphasizes that working through your grief on social media can be therapeutic, with a natural urge to revisit that person's page or site as if he or she were still alive.

"It's their grief. Let them grieve in the way they feel that they want the best grief. And the time may come where they say, well, I think I'm done with this,” Ross says.

But he cautions that fixating on that electronic memory for an unnaturally long time or to the point that it causes issues with your life or relationships can signal to loved ones that it might be time for a gentle intervention.

"If it interferes with your relationships with others and if others point it out to you, then you need to look at it. Because we're not objective. We're too caught up in it to be able to figure it out on our own,” Ross says.

And Ross says while death and grieving are a natural part of life, so is moving on.

"The problem is that if you hold onto it for too long, that's what holds them back. They're not ready to let go, yet they need to let go,” Ross says.

In Scott’s case, the grief is still fresh. He was the one who posted on his sister's page that she'd passed away. And getting feedback on that forum helped him see how many lives Teresa had touched.

"People have support, whether they realize it or not. You have your friends, her friends, family,” Thornsbury says.

And as Dr. Ross says, as long as Scott and his family don't turn their grief into an obsession, it's perfectly fine to use social media to help them through the process.

However, if this is something that's appearing on your news feed and you just don't want to see it any more, you can always hide that person from your news feed for a while, or simply ignore the posts.

If you feel that the people doing the posting might need a gentle nudge, as Dr. Ross said, you can approach them with kindness about the issue.

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