A few years ago more than 500,000 fans of comedienne Betty White started a grassroots campaign on Facebook calling for her to appear on the late night television program Saturday Night Live. It worked. Ms. White was soon booked to host the May 9, 2010 show. After thanking Facebook users for their support in her opening monologue, she said “I didn’t know what Facebook was! And now that I do know what it is, I have to say, it sounds like a huge waste of time!” 

For anyone over 40 years old, social media can be an enigma. Are Facebook friends real friends? Should I care what someone I haven’t seen in 30 years ate for dinner last night? Do I now need to follow Twitter, Instagram, Flickr, Pinterest, Tumblr, LinkedIn, Google Plus+--and a host of ever-changing social media sites—to have a place in the world?

More relevant to funeral service, how does social media treat people who are grieving? A growing number of grief experts have commented on its utility as a way for people to express grief and reach out for comfort. Likewise, social media offers a way for friends and loved ones to offer words of comfort and encouragement without the awkward stumbling to find the right words. Simply erase and retype until your message sounds appropriate.  

The Atlantic reporter Joshua Andrew wrote about social media’s role when someone announces the death of a loved one or expresses grief on social media. He quotes Professor Garry Hare, program director for media psychology at Fielding Graduate University: “In the old days, you had to go knock on your neighbor’s door when something was wrong. But not very many of us did it because we didn’t know what to say. We were just not equipped. Now, the distance provided by social media is extraordinarily safer and that doesn’t make it less meaningful.”

How does that feel when you’re the one struggling to cope with grief? Pretty good, according to Professor Hare. He theorizes that social media allows people who’ve experienced a loss to express authentic, personal thoughts rather than rely on traditional media to interpret—or misinterpret--their experiences to a wider audience. Plus, with the protective distance provided by electronic communication, people have a tendency to express themselves in authentic terms. That’s ironic given the frequency with which social media users create “digital lives” for themselves that often stretch the truth.  Mr. Andrew noted, “Suddenly, an online space typically reserved for jokes and self-promotion is soaked in the earnest rhetoric of condolence and spirituality as people request prayers and thoughts. The transition feels strange and almost inappropriate.”

The other reality of social media is its pace. My own experiences suggest that 24 hours in Facebook time is equal to about a week in real time. If you don’t respond to a posted comment within 12 hours, you might as well forget it. Regarding this issue, Mr. Andrew wrote, “The easy snark and sarcasm that dominates comment-section discussion is replaced by promises of remembrance, but only for a moment, as presumably, the well-wishers then return to their regularly scheduled social media programming.”

The jury’s still out as to the value social media offers to grievers or those expressing sympathy. One fact is clear: it is an accepted way that millions of people communicate every day. Funeral professionals who position themselves as grief resources cannot ignore that.

I suggest establishing a presence for your funeral home on Facebook and Twitter (the two most popular social media sites). If you’re already doing this, send me a note describing your experiences to mallen@ogr.org. If you’re not, consider setting up a business page and using Have the Talk of a Lifetime consumer outreach campaign resources to furnish content—free to OGR members. The Co-Pilot program will automatically send articles designed for consumers to your site. Click here to access the Campaign Materials page (enter FAMIC as the Username and CAMPAIGN as the password), then click on Have the Talk of a Lifetime Facebook Tool to register your account and get started. Be sure to access the Social Media Guidebook on the same page for some helpful tips. If you still need help, give us a call at (800) 637-8030. And we’ll give you longer than 12 hours to do so.

Joshua Andrew’s article: How We Grieve on Social Media