November 15, 2015 by Val Walker
The Softer Side of Tech:
Is Hitting the Emoji and Posting a Comment Enough Condolence?
A Conversation with Sharon Perfetti
I invited Sharon to weigh in on the impact of the internet for comforting grieving people. I particularly wondered if we were becoming too dependent on using social media to do the job of reaching out to people in pain. Were grieving people feeling more connected or more isolated by our posts?
Sharon is the perfect person for my questions. She is Co-founder and Executive Director of the Cool Kids Campaign, a nonprofit for kids with cancer in Maryland. She was inspired to co-found Cool Kids after serving as General Coordinator for Annie’s Playground, a playground created in honor of 6 year old Annie who was hit and killed by a drunk driver. After working with grieving families through these two projects, Sharon recognized a need for those who have lost a loved one to make sure they aren’t forgotten, and to continue the conversation about their lives. In response, she created The Stories Between, a comforting online memorial site that celebrates and archives the amazing lives our loved ones have led.
Can you sum up the good, the bad, and the ugly about how social media affects grieving people?
Sharon: Social media is fabulous for building community for those who have felt isolated, especially for grieving people. But what if social media makes us think that comforting someone is quick, easy and convenient? It’s instant empathy, at our finger tips. All we need to do is hit the emoji button and offer our “drive by condolence” by posting our “sending our thoughts and prayers” comment. Okay, all done. We move on, and expect the grieving person to move on.
But sadly, grieving people don’t just move on. Ironically, once they have received their 72 Likes and 47 comments of love and support over the first week or two, the following weeks and months can be brutal. Where did all that love and attention go now that six months have passed, and you are missing your loved one more than ever? What if you just cannot “get over it,” and does this mean you’ve become too “unlikable” for the public (appearing whiney or needy)? So your true feelings are not worth posting because it makes you appear weak? Grieving people have told me they felt more isolated later on when the supportive comments and Likes disappeared for the long haul of grieving, especially for anniversaries, holidays, or birthdays.
In short, we need to follow up beyond social media–weeks, months, years later!
You are so right, Sharon. So once we have shown our condolence on FB or other social media, what do you think we should do to follow up?
Sharon: Real, tangible, long term empathy is needed. Empathy is not supposed to be an instant cure all. Even with a follow up email we might say, “I saw your post on Facebook, and felt I needed to say more, in a private and personal way.” You could send a hand-written card snail mail. Depending on how well you know this person, certainly call to check in regularly, or offer to come by for a visit. Practically speaking, you could offer to give rides, help clean, babysit kids, drop off groceries or dinners, pick up medicine. The important thing is to keep touching base.
Sharon, do you think it’s possible to keep touching base with grieving people online over a period of months, or years?
Sharon: Certain tribute websites are out there for sharing our condolences and memories, but I have not found those sites sufficient for families I’ve worked with who lost their children to cancer. Listening to those family members and friends, I realized what they needed was a permanent gathering space for sharing photos, videos, stories, reflections, and other archiving projects. Could such a space online be a “touching base” place where we could cherish all the ways this person had touched our lives? And where we could continue to offer our support to grieving people over the months and years? Creating such a site named “The Stories Between” became my new passion. My mission: Loved ones, friends and colleagues can “be there” for each other, even beyond our own lifetimes with what we thoughtfully leave behind—online.
So, yes, the internet can deepen and enrich our in-person ways of comforting and showing our empathy. Or it can be a cop out from really “being there” when others are in pain. But with sites like the one you created, Sharon, I feel a whole lot better about the power and the future of the internet for supporting grieving people. Can you talk more about the ways your site, The Stories Between, helps families after loss?
Sharon: Many of us find that sharing our real feelings and most tender thoughts with a grieving family can be intimidating and scary, especially as the months and years wear on. We might even fear we have nothing more left to say except that we are so deeply sorry. So then, what else could we do or say? A website like The Stories Between creates a comfortable environment and platform to reach out with more intimacy, because, as we all know, the internet lowers our inhibitions. (Which can be a bad thing on social media or on certain sites, of course.) But with tribute sites like mine, with lowered inhibitions, we feel a sense of freedom to fully express ourselves in the best ways. We are free to express our stories, special photos, artwork, music, poetry or personal memories that reveal the impact that person had on our lives. We can genuinely reflect and take real time to sit down and share our empathy and love in a deeper way, a soulful way. We feel a sense of peace and relief when we know our gestures of caring will last for future generations to share.
What a wonderful creation you have given to the world, Sharon. Thank you so much for joining me today, and for all the work you do. You have opened my mind about what tribute sites can do for us.
Sharon: Thank you!
To read more about Sharon’s site, visit www.thestoriesbetween.com
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