Social media can be source of support when grieving

HealthWatch

A few moments after I gave consent to the medical team at Mayo Clinic to withdraw life support from my spouse, I posted the heart wrenching news to my network on Facebook. The team had worked hard to help him survive the hemorrhage from a massive aneurism, but they were out of options. After 29 years with Joe, losing my partner and best friend knocked me down hard. I felt life, as I loved it, stop.

From the moment we boarded the air ambulance a few days earlier I chose to keep our social network informed about Joe’s situation, intuitively knowing social support would be good for us no matter the outcome. I knew Joe trusted my judgment to keep everyone informed. I am glad I did.

Psychologists who study trauma have found social support helps healing after tragedy, including the trauma of losing a close loved one such as a spouse. Because it is my nature to learn what I can about challenges, I was grateful when a coworker handed me her copy of the book, “Option B. Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy,” by Sheryl Sandberg, an executive at Facebook, and psychologist Adam Grant. It is a book loaded with stories and information about surviving loss that I would recommend to individuals wanting to better understand how to manage grief and support someone living with it.

As a therapist, I have worked closely with people who experienced profound loss but now I realize how little I knew about grief. I am learning a lot about the power of social support to propel recovery. One thing I am learning is how engaging support can unleash a powerful healing response.

Health researchers tell us social support is a big part of being healthy and that better recovery outcomes for mental health challenges, including grief, is associated with having a network of supportive family and friends. Being vulnerable and sharing personal information helped inform my friends, family, coworkers, and people I do not know very well but who knew Joe. They learned what to care about and could decide how to care. Sharing on social media has its problems, but I am grateful for what social media did for me.

People not looped in on details tend to either stay quiet or offer general niceties or platitudes, but when someone shares intimate details of a situation, it can engage their social network on a deeper more meaningful level. It is this deeper, more meaningful connection that gives strength to someone struggling. People do not read minds, so sharing what is inside helps people know our needs. I got a lot of appreciative feedback for being candid in my frequent updates. Our social network from around the world came through with hundreds and hundreds of messages of support that continues today.

There is no one-size-fits-all formula to recover from tragedy. Semi-publicly sharing personal information is not for everybody. We do not find recovery walking someone else’s path. Engaging my social network in the way I chose worked for me. It might not work for you. It recently worked for two of my friends. Each faced troubling situations of their own. I marveled at the outpouring of support when they chose to openly share personal details on Facebook.

Although I have distance to travel on my recovery path, I feel much further along than where I might be without the connection to my amazing friends and family both near and far, for whom I will always be grateful, and with whom I intend to stay connected.

Brian D. Rendel is a nationally board certified licensed professional counselor and Training and Prevention Coordinator at Copper Country Mental Health Institute in Houghton, Michigan.