We hear a lot about the negative side of social media - the disconnection, the time wasted, the cyber-bullying and trolling. But social media like Facebook can be a great resource and a source of support, for instance, to people who are grieving, battling a health condition, or simply seeking friendly input through the trials and tribulations of parenting.
In June 2015, Heather lost her daughter Rebecca at 21 to childhood leukemia, a disease she’d suffered from and fought for half of her life.
Throughout this painful journey, a rollercoaster of hope followed by disappointment - the ultimate blow being the doctor’s decree that the disease had won, and it was now a matter of weeks before the end – Heather recorded everything - pictures, feelings, the good news, the bad news – on Facebook.
Her Facebook feed, and now the memorialised ‘Remembering Rebecca’ Facebook profile, is a roadmap of her feelings throughout, her own and the thousands of people who shared in the journey of illness and ultimately, the loss of Rebecca. Photographs, tributes and poems are added almost daily, to live on forever in cyberspace.
“I think Facebook was a great space for both me and her during that time. Now, I am grieving her loss, and Facebook remains a valuable space for me, and those whose lives she touched, to remember her,” says Heather.
Miriam Mannak lost one of her closest friends after she fell from a rock face in a mountain accident in Cape Town last year. “Jen was 34, a rocket scientist who built apps for African healthcare workers, and from the one day to the other she was gone,” Mannak recalls. “Facebook allowed everyone who knew Jen to share pictures and anecdotes, which I bundled in a book for her mother in the US. I think that sometimes, it is easier to write about loss than to talk about it,” she says.
A memorialised Facebook account allows friends to post on the deceased’s wall, and by now, there are literally millions of these accounts, which connect the dead to the living in a way never conceived of in the days before Facebook. Many people, particularly parents who’ve lost a child, have found it an almost life-saving forum.
“Loss, especially if unexpected, is difficult to handle at the best of times, and the feeling of a collective to help support you through this process, is very appealing. Even strangers offering their sympathy and condolences for what you are going through can temporarily become a source of support,” says clinical psychologist Dr Colinda Linde.
Can Facebook ever substitute the presence of someone whose shoulder you can cry on? After all, social media is only ever in words or pictures, but no real human contact.
The resounding answer from mourners and counsellors alike is, if it helps, there is nothing wrong with expressing your emotions and the trail of your grief, however heartrending, sad or even unsettling, on Facebook. “Grieving is multi-faceted, and everyone experiences it differently. For some people it is too overwhelming to sit with the enormity of the emotion, especially if they tend to suppress or process privately,” says Dr Linde.
“The distance which social media provides is a safe one in which to test expressing how they are feeling. If someone is isolated from family and has a limited support system where they live, social media is also a way to connect and stay in touch with others who are sharing the trauma or who can support them through it. The risk comes in when you are so busy distracting yourself looking at messages and posts online, that you are detached to an extent from the actual process and feeling of the loss,” she says.
Family Life Centre counsellor Claudia Abelheim adds, however, that Facebook doesn’t and shouldn’t compete with one-on-one counselling, particularly during the early days of grieving and especially in tragic cases or when a young person dies. “Face-to-face counselling allows the mourner to express their emotions in the presence of someone who is expertly able to listen and guide them, to monitor their behaviour in real time, in a way that makes both parties accountable for the process. Facebook can be complementary to this, but it doesn’t replace the value of traditional grief counselling,” says Abelheim.
A question that comes to mind is whether grieving is perhaps extended – by continual Facebook reminders and updates - beyond its natural stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Does the perpetual nature of Facebook prevent a mourner from ‘moving on’?
Heather says she doesn’t think Facebook is preventing her from moving on with her life. “I think the posts take on the same life as the waves of grief. The time between the posts and the waves will, with time, widen, but the intensity of the loss will never change,” she says.
Of course, social media doesn’t only provide support for those who are grieving. There are numerous health support groups for people battling cancer, or even just looking for gluten free recipes and advice in treating coeliac disease, for instance, as well as for parents trying to navigate the tricky path of childrearing. The Village, for one, is a South African-based Facebook group for parents of teens and tweens and has over 25 000 members to date.
“The Village has been a great resource when I’ve faced questions like whether to put my child on Ritalin or to ban certain video games like Fortnight. Here you’ll find thousands of other parents who’ve come through the same struggles. It’s a kind and supportive place where tough questions are answered with compassion and wisdom,” says single dad Don Bayley.
Facebook has become a digital scrapbook, a place to collect memories or share our struggles, experiences, wisdom, support and triumphs in an interactive way. Sharing is caring, goes the saying, and if Facebook is the modern facilitator of this, who can argue with that?
Social media can offer invaluable support to parents, people suffering from illnesses or addiction, or grieving the loss of family members or friends. To find a support group on Facebook, go to Explore on the left of the screen and scroll down to ‘groups’, then click on ‘discover’. You can also enter keywords into your search bar.
Here are a few support groups you might find useful:
The Village: An SA-based group where parents of teens and tweens share resources, insight and experiences. Over 25 000 members.
Grieving Mothers-South Africa: For women who lost their children at any age. Over 2 200 members.
Cancer Support Group: For those who want to listen, read, learn, comment, and share their story or treatment. Over 17 000 members.
Affected by Suicide, Depression South Africa: Group for those affected by suicide, bipolar and depression in South Africa. Over 700 members.
Bipolar Disorder Support Group South Africa: Supporting sufferers of bipolar disorder, as well as their loved ones. Over 1 100 members.
Addiction Recovery Support Group: A judgement free group for people in recovery and people seeking recovery and/or attempting to get and stay clean. Over 49 000 members.