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Are we becoming desensitised to news on death and grief?

My mother’s grief is Bangladeshi—it’s loud, it’s an outpour, it’s physical. It does not make itself smaller, instead, it shows you the pain that news of death brings. It is not afraid to let you know that it is in pain in the first place. It’s a world away from scrolling on Twitter and finding out that so and so’s loved one has passed away—crammed in between COVID-19 updates, hot takes on racism and why ‘men aren’t shit’.

Since losing my grandfather recently, I experienced the familiar feeling most people go through when grieving. Questions like ‘What is it all for?’ were amplified on social media amid all the noise. I know how interconnected death makes us—how one person’s news of passing affects tens and hundreds, even if it’s a stranger and an obituary shared via Instagram Stories.

Now every time I read an announcement of someone’s passing, I will usually respond with the words, ‘Inna lillahi waa inna illahi rajioon’, which in Arabic means ‘To Him we belong and to Him, we will return’—a phrase of peace shared in Islamic customs when someone passes away.

But after typing out that same sentence for the fifth time on Twitter one day, it led me to wonder about how desensitised we have become to news about death and to those grieving during a pandemic. A time where topics such as dating during lockdown and working from home to concerns on food banks, and thanks to Marcus Rashford, how children in unfortunate circumstances have been eating, have become popular topics. However, the subject matter of grieving is still one which is avoided, even in a pandemic. Possibly more so in a pandemic. Maybe we think that if we don’t speak about it, we can avoid its existence altogether.

In January 2021, when the figures for coronavirus in the UK surpassed 100,000 across every metric and Boris Johnson responded with the words “I’m deeply sorry” and “we did everything we could,” there wasn’t any social media riot or upheaval. Perhaps we’re all mentally and physically exhausted or maybe we’re upholding our British values by ‘keeping calm and carrying on’. But you can’t keep calm and carry on when unnecessary deaths have happened and are still happening.

To note, in an open letter, Justin Welby and Stephen Cottrell, the archbishops of Canterbury and York, asked the general public to pause, reflect and pray: “100,000 isn’t just an abstract figure. Each number is a person: someone we loved and someone who loved us.”

With that being said, if 100,000 people and counting have passed away solely due to COVID-19 in Britain, that means there are millions grieving in the UK and billions across the world. When posing the question of whether social media has helped those grieving, the responses, like grief itself, were particular and personal.

For Di’mond, “I, personally, found that social media was more detrimental to my grieving than helpful. While I sometimes found solace and support on social media, the barrage of bad news and collective grieving was a constant reminder of this familial grief and instead of giving space for a celebration of her life, I found myself deeper in the despair of grief and death.

Twitter was so much worse in my opinion and just another barrage of constant news, tracking of deaths and debates under every single post, politicising everything, no matter what it was. In hindsight, I think Instagram was the most ‘peaceful’ but I also think I’ve been able to curate who I follow and what I see much easier on that platform so it being filled with family, friends and content I really wanted to see was more likely than anywhere else.”

Whereas for Fahima, “I preferred Instagram because randomly, I’d be reminded of a Quranic quote that would bring comfort and then the algorithm would change and another one would generate. It is weird to grieve on social media, especially when their profile is still there and they’re not here anymore but generally, I think grieving without the busyness of social media is easier. If I really wanted to see that quote, I could just open up a book. Being on social media when grieving distracts you but it doesn’t cure anything.”

The answers surrounding grief and social media rolled in and continued to vary. Some like Nafisah tended to stay away from messaging apps because they didn’t know what to say when they got asked how they were. For others like Rahela, “To grieve is to remember, celebrate, rejoice, feel all the feelings, good and bad,” while also recognising “Grieving is so personal and requires a personal grievance (that’s not public or on the internet) but many times collective grievances come with a great purpose.”

All to say, there’s no one way to grieve. When asking Doctor Pragya Agarwal, author of Wish We Knew What To Say, and activist, behavioural and data scientist and speaker, on how we remain sensitised to death in a time where it’s death has come to the forefront of our news and lives, she said, “I really do not have any clear answers, except that we decide how we engage with social media, we should set boundaries. We should all reflect on our mental state and level of anxiety, and mute and block as needed.”

Doctor Agarwal continued to say, “People find social media helpful in reaching out sometimes in the void, sometimes to strangers to process their loss and grief especially right now as there is so little immediate and intimate comfort available. It is easy to become desensitised to something if it is all around us, and we know that social media algorithms show us things similar to what we interact or engage with most, so it is likely that we can get trapped into an echo chamber of grief if we are not careful.”

But like so many of us at home, it would be tone-deaf to suggest to completely get off social media if that’s the norm for you as it’s unequivocally a core part of our lifestyles now, especially when it provides a lifeline of experiences we currently cannot get from elsewhere.

Doctor Agrawal goes on to point out that, “We should be able to decide how news of grief, loss, death is affecting our own mental health and whether it is exaggerating our anxieties”. Meaning, if social media is to be used for our benefit, especially when in bereavement, it should be utilised for our wellbeing only.

“It is also useful for us to remember that these are all real lives, real people and that even as a collective, each of them matter. Once again, we need to actively try to individuate rather than homogenise,” says Doctor Agrawal. While on the same hand, remembering to hold space and time for our grief. It is so easy to move onto the next thing, even if we’re not physically going anywhere right now, but what good would that do for our passed ones and for ourselves?

Grieving is not a straightforward path nor emotion, therefore to lumber the circumstances around grief and death, even in a pandemic, is a dismissal of the gifts and lessons grief provides. As John Green once wrote, “Grief does not change you, it reveals you,” and the best thing about opening anything up is that it makes room for who we’re supposed to be next.

Here’s to our loved ones, may they always be in peace.

What should happen to your social media profiles after you die?

No one lives forever, that’s a fact that everyone can agree with—at least for now. While most of older generations haven’t produced enough digital data to have ‘digital remains’ after their death, most of Gen Z and below will leave an enormous bulk of data through their social media after they’re gone. Creepy? Maybe, but more and more companies want you to start embracing the idea of a digital afterlife. Who should have control over someone’s social media pages is the real problem here, and it is one that just keeps on growing.

A few days ago, a study conducted by researchers Carl Öhman and David Watson from the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) showed how quickly Facebook’s user base could be outnumbered by dead users. Öhman and Watson predicted that by 2050, there would be more accounts that belonged to deceased users than living, active people on Facebook.

Most people, when planning their legacy, will think about their possessions and their finances. What about all the different versions of ourselves we’ve scattered everywhere online? What about your hard-drive backups? Digital lives are immortal, so figuring out what will happen to them while you’re still alive is beneficial, but to understand what can be done, we first need to know what happens to accounts of deceased people.

Even though this is a rather new concept, some of the big social media websites like Facebook already offer some form of ‘death planning’. You have two options: the first one is to set your account to delete everything once Facebook is notified of your death by someone. The second option is picking someone close to you as your ‘legacy contact’. This special someone will then be able to write a post pinned at the top of your page, accept friend requests and even update your profile picture. The only thing they won’t be able to access are your messages, so your little secrets will be safe.

This is what Facebook calls a memorialised account, a place where your close ones can have a browse and remember you. Memorialised profiles can’t pop up in your timeline to avoid causing any distress by reminding you of the deceased’s birthday for example. Instagram only recently followed the movement and now also offers to memorialise someone’s account after receiving a valid request.

After their research, the OII wanted Facebook to invite historians to find a way to curate our digital data post-mortem. What we leave behind when we pass away should be looked at as heritage to the next generations and a possible way of helping them understand their history. Not only should historians analyse this data, but they should approach it as something different than traditional historical data.

In 2018, researcher Hossein Rahnama started working with an unnamed CEO on a special digital avatar. This one would serve as a virtual ‘consultant’ when the actual CEO passes away. Rahnama is now implementing this idea into an application called Augmented Eternity. By using all your digital data—how you communicate and interact with others online—algorithms can recreate your personality and reactions to anything. This may sound like something out of a science fiction movie, but our technology will soon be able to achieve this, so we can sort of live forever on our social media platforms.

At the moment, people’s digital legacy is in the hands of companies like Facebook—private companies guided by what is best commercially and not historically. A single commercial company holding what is now the largest archive of human behaviour should be carefully watched and some thoughts need to be put into how this data should be stored and used after people’s death. Who knows, we might learn a lot from all these likes and embarrassing pictures.

So Facebook, the ball is in your court.