By Meg Tansey
Is it okay to express sympathy on social media?
A friend of mine posted on Facebook that his mother passed away. I see these grief posts pretty frequently, and I'm never sure what the appropriate response is. If a friend's loved one dies, do I post a condolence note on his wall or private message him — or just contact him offline? It seems that if he put this information out over Facebook that he is expecting responses on Facebook. What do you think? And does the protocol change when the person posting about a death in the family is a colleague or acquaintance, rather than a friend?
Encourage Expression of Feelings:
My first rule of grief is that the worst thing you can do is nothing. So at the risk of horrifying both grandmothers and etiquette experts everywhere, I think you are correct that if someone posts about a loss in their life on Facebook, you are not in the wrong to respond on Facebook. There are two main reasons for this, one: I generally feel that you should follow the grieving person's lead as much as possible (i.e. talk about the person if they want to talk about the person/don't if they don't). Two is that I think a medium like Facebook can be a great way to provide someone with a much-needed real-time jolt of sympathy and community. And community support, both in real life and increasingly online, is an important part of the mourning process. That being said, is a Facebook comment sufficient for a friend mourning his mother? Of course not. A more thoughtful follow-up, whether it's a note or a call or an e-mail is in order.
Death is such an uncomfortable topic. I think it can be a helpful trick to substitute a less-loaded phrase to help consider a response to someone who is more of an acquaintance than a friend. For example, substitute someone saying: "it's my birthday" for "my mother just died." That sounds crazy, but stick with me for a moment. If you were in a meeting with a work colleague and she randomly said, "today's my birthday," you would probably casually say: "oh, happy birthday!"Similarly, saying (or posting) something as simple as "I'm so sorry" or "My condolences" should come just as easily.
A version of this piece originally ran on modernloss.com