After losing my mom and dad to cancer last year, I took to social media to find some comfort in my grief. Pandemic restrictions were still in place in New York; I couldn’t see my friends much in person; and I felt like people just wanted to leave the room every time I started talking about death and dying. Online, I found my only reliable source of solace after this loss: Instagram accounts where other people hosted intimate mourning sites, using photographs and videos to document their own experiences of dealing with loss. loved one. While some platforms are personal, others have death doulas and end-of-life caregivers speaking to a wider audience about death and grief. With between 40,000 and 96,000 or more subscribers, the biggest platforms are run by women who focus their work on helping others to process or feel less alone in their grief.
Surprisingly, bereavement stories have grown in popularity here on a platform that’s all about curated “authenticity,” happiness, and showing your best side online. As influencers market their brands using photographs that capture ideals of beauty and a sense of upward mobility (things always get better), bereavement accounts have started popping up, offering a different message.
Curator and writer Marvin Heiferman, who documented his grief on Instagram following the sudden death of her husband Maurice Berger from Covid two years ago, expressed in an interview with LitHub:
The pandemic was disrupting lives in multiple ways. Anxiety, fear and grief were prevalent. And on a social media platform known for its relentless branding of happiness, I became a grieving guy, posting images of my sadness, my 24/7 confusion, and one-foot-ahead mode. the other who left me alone to operate there.
Throughout 2021, I ‘liked’ posts from people who shared videos to normalize conversations about end-of-life care. I engaged and commented on posts from caregivers and death doulas of color, like Oceana Sawyer and Alua Arthur, who asked, “What does a good death look like for people in our community who have to live with constant anxiety of death?” I scoured accounts hosted by social workers offering grief resources and coaches who reminded me that keeping my mom’s worn-out shoes or listening to my dad’s voicemails is part of the grieving process.
I could identify with this one-foot-ahead mode that Heiferman described, because I had now become the digital grief. Seeing how others expressed their grief online, I was able to put mine in a certain language. I was haunted, for example, by the post of death doula Naomi Edmondson, who shared a personal photo with her online community expressing the sadness of another year passing without her mother.
When death doula and community activist Alua Arthur asked us to stop scrolling and give her a minute of our lives to stop and think about death, I gave her that minute.
These accounts, all with beautiful images and aesthetic elements, were now vying for my attention on a platform where algorithms determine curated content, but they demanded something different from me. It wasn’t about hitting “like” on an influencer’s post recommending a particular underwear brand or commenting on pictures from my friend’s wedding in Mexico. Seeing other people’s grief messages required me to empathize and acknowledge others’ pain. But, at some point, I started to feel uncomfortable, even anxious about scrolling through beautiful, eye-catching images that depicted the pain of others, feeling like I was not giving them the appropriate moral response.
Susan Sontag, who focused on images of war and violence, saw the problem of responding enthusiastically to images of others’ suffering or pain. In his book On the photo (1977), she takes an anti-aesthetic position and argues that a photograph of a suffering person only aestheticizes the suffering for the pleasure of the viewer. But the latter Sontag changed her mind before her death and insisted in her last book, Regarding the pain of others (2003), that such a photograph can have a lasting moral and political effect precisely because of its aesthetics. So, now beauty is key again, and it doesn’t just serve the pleasure of the viewer.
I think both arguments made by Sontag are correct and can be applied to these current digital times. Emphasizing the aesthetic and beauty strategies of an image can indeed help to distance us from the experience of pain that the creator is trying to portray. It could also affect how we react to these images. Yet at the same time – and this is where Sontag’s later argument comes in – “Narratives can make us understand. Photographs do something else: they haunt us,” she writes.
Because of the beauty and their aesthetic elements, images can make us stop to think, engage and empathize. And in my opinion, that’s good. Beauty can create distance and prevent us from recognizing or empathizing with the pain that the image is trying to portray. Corn it can also capture our attention, haunt us, and even demand an additional response from us. Sontag focused on this “haunting effect” in his last book before he died of lung cancer. She never lived to experience Instagram or image-centric social media platforms. Yet I believe his argument applies equally to personal and community bereavement accounts and other digital bereavement sites of the present.
Of course, the aesthetic elements of an article can take us away from the reality of grief, but they can also do the opposite and invite us to take a closer look. About stories of grief, about other people’s pain, even if one image made us stop scrolling for a minute to think about our mortality, what a “good death” looks like, then that’s fine. And if the image can further motivate us to advocate at the political and community level to enable everyone to achieve that “good death”, then perhaps the image has done its job. And ultimately it’s up to us, viewers or scrollers, how to react.