‘Griefstagram' Shows New Way to Mourn on Social Media

Years after Facebook “in memoriam” pages became common, startlingly honest social media accounts that track an individual's own grief process may be the next wave in how we express loss online

Kate George was sitting on a plane, swiping through photos on her phone of herself and her late husband when tears began to roll down her face.

Only 78 days had passed since he died at age 32. As George wept on a crowded plane this March, she did something she had never done before: She took a photo of herself crying.

A month and a half later, she posted the photo on her new Instagram account, Griefstagram. On the right side of the frame, she smiles alongside the man she married. On the left side, she stares down into the camera on the plane, her eyes full of tears, stunned.

George, 35, said she started the Griefstagram account to depict online what loss is really like, to try to help herself and others.

“We don’t get a lot of realistic photos of grief,” she said.

Years after Facebook “in memoriam” pages became common, startlingly honest social media accounts that track an individual's own grief process may be the next wave in how we express loss online.

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When George began to grapple with her husband's death in December following a struggle with alcoholism, she turned to the internet for help. But she didn’t initially find much that she related to.

“If you look at what people hashtag with #grief, it’s a lot of inspirational quotes,” she said.

In contrast to the angels and butterflies that often show up in social media posts about death, George’s Griefstagram posts are by turns heart-wrenching and darkly funny. She often uses the hashtags #widowlife and #widowproblems. In one post, she poses dramatically in the snow and pokes fun at the idea that she has to “perform” grief for others.

In another post, she shows photos of a trip from Rome, where she buried the wedding rings she and her husband wore when they traveled. To her horror, a street musician began to play the R.E.M. song “Everybody Hurts" as she cried near the Colosseum.

George -- a California resident who lived in Washington, D.C. for years -- said she started Griefstagram as a new account, separate from her other social media accounts, to avoid “widow bombing” people who turn to Facebook for light updates on acquaintances' vacations and babies.

“I don’t want to be like, ‘Oh, you’re having coffee and I’m going to remind you of your mortality,” she said with a laugh.

A growing number of people are tracking their own grief processes with dedicated social media accounts, Baltimore clinical social worker Litsa Williams said. She and counseling psychologist Eleanor Haley run the popular online grief support community What’s Your Grief?

Social media accounts dedicated to one's own grief process seem to have particular appeal for people who have used the internet since they were young, said Williams.

"People are getting more honest about putting themselves out there," she said. "And digital natives don't have the same lines in their head about what is appropriate to share."

Older people often are more skeptical about sharing their true feelings online, Williams said she finds.

Online communities devoted to grief appeal to many people because they're available 24 hours a day and they can be anonymous.

"It's there at 3 in the morning when you're struggling and can't sleep and are alone," Williams said.

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Writer Michelle Miller said that since her husband's death in 2014, her online community has been vital. The 35-year-old California resident estimated she has met 2,000 people online and 50 people in real life thanks to her social media accounts, blog and book.

"The whole hashtag thing has created a whole community," she said. "If I click on '#widow,' I can see posts from all over the world."

This June, one group of young widows who read Miller's posts even whisked her away on a weekend trip.

"I don't know what grief was like before the internet," the 35-year-old mother of two said. "I guess you would look in a newspaper and try to find a support group? There's no possible way I would have met 50 people in the past year."

Like the Griefstagram posts, some of Miller's posts to Instagram are full of sorrow, some are funny and some are both.

"I'm still getting mail for my late husband after more than two years and one move later!!!" she writes in one post. "He's DEAD you idiots," she scrawled in red on the photo.

On her website, she wrote about how setting up a "widow registry" for gifts would make more sense than having people send flowers. What would she put on hers? Tissues, sweatpants and liquor.

Miller said her readers tell her they're relieved to see someone be so honest online about grief.

"People really want to talk about it, and they're not used to seeing it on such a public forum," she said.

While talking online with people who have similar experiences can be soothing, online grief communities can have downsides, Williams, the social worker, said. She and her business partner train mental health professionals about how to talk with their clients about their social media use.

In social media grief communities, people who are not mental health professionals can be judgmental and give bad advice. And vulnerable people seeking support can end up comparing themselves to others, she said.

"The nature of social media is we compare ourselves to others," she said. "It can be like, 'Wow, I'm failing at grief because look at how together she's got it.'"

Williams recommended using social media communities as a suppliment to -- not a replacement for -- getting support in real life from loved ones, and from a mental health professional, if you need that.

She said that since she and her business partner started What's Your Grief? in 2012, they have seen the number of people talking about grief on every social media platform grow exponentially.

Reading many of these posts has been healing, Miller said.

"When this happened to me, I thought there was nobody else like me," she said.

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