Amid Twitter chatter, grief helps others heal
“The first rule of grief club: always talk about grief club.”
This has been poet-writer Nikki Reimer’s mantra since her brother, musician and Women guitarist Christopher Reimer, died suddenly on February 21. Via Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook, Nikki has conveyed her sorrow: unfiltered, raw, and unapologetically discomfiting. As a casual acquaintance and follower of her Twitter feed, I remember reading the initial announcement. The words were harsh, deliberate, and numb: “I must have typed ‘my brother died last night’ at least 20 times by now, but I still resist its implications with every fibre of my being.”
Confining brokenness to 140 characters does little to suppress the pain. If anything, the hurt radiates as the declaration gets washed away by the Twitter stream, swallowed in a sea of pithy remarks and self-promotion. In the weeks following Christopher’s death, I watched Nikki unleash her feelings. Professionally, I admired how beautifully suited to Twitter her poetry made her. Personally, I went from being devastated for her to worrying about her mental health to squirming and wincing at her utter refusal to self-edit.
But the problem wasn’t Nikki. It was me. My grandfather had died suddenly on January 14, just a few weeks before Christopher. I hadn’t said a word on Twitter. I felt hugely reluctant to disclose on Facebook. I was reading Nikki’s thoughts and the incredible outpouring of support being directed her way online, and I was jealous that she could unburden herself, ask for help, and change the conversation about grief one tweet at a time. Nikki had bravery and self-preservation. I had neither.
Two years before Nikki took to social media and opened a dialogue about her grief, legally blind photographer and PR pro Cathy Browne used the same tools to document her husband David Kane’s illness and subsequent death.
They had relocated to Vancouver in 2009, and in a remarkably short time (by Vancouver’s alleged cliquey standards) built an online community that translated into a huge circle of close friendships “in real life”. When Kane collapsed in March 2010, Browne says, it wasn’t even a conscious decision to tweet about it, but a reflex. Browne and I began following each other just a few weeks before Kane collapsed again later that year and, nursing another recent tragedy, I was transfixed by her transparency, gutted with empathy for their plight, and impressed by the way their community rallied, even organizing a fundraiser to help Browne and Kane pay a month’s rent during the leanest times. When Kane died in March 2011, I felt like I’d lost a friend too, despite never having met him.
Now, over a year later, Browne says she can barely imagine having survived her grief without the community she built through Twitter and Facebook.
“I had literally one person saying, ‘How could you do that? It’s in very poor taste,’ ” Browne recalls. “And that person actually, about a month later, messaged me back and said they were sorry and thanked me for doing it. But really, the reaction was totally positive. At the time I really didn’t care one way or another. It’s not only channelling what happened, but hopefully, by example or at least by experience, having almost a blueprint for other people who might be going through the same thing. There’s no right way or wrong way of dealing with something, so maybe by reading along, people will realize, ‘Hey, it’s okay.’ ”
That’s precisely what Nikki Reimer has found over the course of the last six months.
“We don’t talk about loss,” she says. “And we need to. So many people have written to me and thanked me for what I’ve been saying, which is weird. Initially, I felt like I was saying too much and being really selfish, but all these people who’ve had similar experiences are saying, ‘Thank you for openly expressing your pain. It’s helping me.’ ”
Florence Chee is a researcher at the Centre for Policy Research on Science and Technology at SFU. As a social scientist, she examines the role media plays in people’s everyday lives, with a focus on online communities. She cautions against putting too much faith in for-profit corporations like Facebook and Twitter—after all, they make money by collecting your data to help companies market products to you—but she does see their implicit worth.
“Let’s call them what they are: valuable tools that enable us to engage instead of isolate ourselves,” Chee says. While the notorious online “overshare” has brought plenty of Jerry Springer–esque details to light about our extended family and casual acquaintances, the flip side is a platform to share, disclose, and perhaps heal.
“Everyone has different amounts of time they need to deal with grief,” says Chee. “More often than not, we’re made to move on sooner than we can or should. Many of us live in a situation where we don’t have rituals to deal with death or loss and taking time is something that—in our time-crunch society—is not permitted. If these tools allow us the space to explore feelings, connect with people in ways we normally wouldn’t, then there is value to be had there.”
Those connections inspired me to start opening up, and part of that is telling this story. Browne’s community has continued to rally around her, showing love in impressive and unexpected ways. And for Nikki, those connections have proven life-changing in a way she could never have anticipated.
“I’ve been given kindness by so many people, and in the initial horrible aftermath, what kept me going was all of this,” she says. “I’m changed by this experience. I’m changed by my brother’s death, I’m not the same person anymore, but I’m also changed by all of this compassion.”