Lessons from Reeva Steenkamp: how social is changing the way we grieve

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RIP Reeva Steenkamp

Reeva Steenkamp’s death is an absolute tragedy, and that can never be minimised. No matter what the outcome of the complex trial that is unfolding, the international public has united in mutual sympathy and compassion for the Steenkamp family, with condolences and kind words overtaking the public spaces created to honour the memory of a young and talented woman. The purpose of this piece is not to judge the trial or the situation, but to engage in a commentary about the effect that social media has had on bereavement as a whole.

These new online spaces dedicated to Steenkamp multiplied quickly, and their motives are pure enough at a glance — people are compiling pages of tribute, doing their best to feel useful in the midst of grief and helplessness. Maybe, they think, in some small way, they are allowing themselves and others a space to grieve and heal, and to be among others in support of Steenkamp’s family and memory.

This is not a recent development in social media, particularly Facebook.

It often happens that, after the death of a friend or relative, those grieving instinctively take to the wall of the deceased, writing messages addressed to them. The Facebook profile of the dearly departed leaves a vestige, a trace of their lives that is still present in the physical world. The profile page acts in much the same way as a tombstone — it is a piece of the world dedicated to the dead. Instead of visiting their grave and whispering a prayer or leaving a flower, we post our deepest feelings of sadness, regret and shock on the wall to lend a catharsis to our sorrow.

Steenkamps’s shocking death prompted the creation of over 25 tribute pages (at last count), and the overwhelming theme of these pages is condolence. There are some troubling aspects at work on some of these pages, however, that must make us question the sensitivity of our new outlet for grief. One of these pages (the most “popular”, if you can use such a word in this context) has posted pictures of Steenkamp, with captions like: “Let’s see if we can get 50 000 likes for this picture of Reeva”.

Those of us who still believe in altruism might think that the motive behind these calls to action are to show those who knew Steenkamp that she is mourned, that she is remembered, that there are thousands of people out there supporting their healing process. To others however it comes across as a clear ploy to capitalise on emotion. Are these pictures there as some kind of bid to situate the page in question as the “best” Reeva Steenkamp tribute? Is our social media grief starting to morph into an opportunity for some? This is a contentious issue that must call us to pay closer attention to our handling of social media remembrance.

A more troubling aspect of these pages is the commenters themselves. While most use these pages as a sincere platform, there are others posting hateful messages towards Oscar Pistorius, swapping conjecture on the case and going into great detail about their imagined version of events. Surely, if these pages are there to show support to the family and friends of the deceased, these kinds of comments are not helpful or appropriate. These comments also serve to accelerate the “trial by media” potential that accompanies high-profile crimes.

The amount of interaction that these comments receive bears testimony to their potential as influencers, and act to skew perceptions of the public, so much so that before any testimony, evidence, prosecution or defence has taken place, the public has made up its mind. If such pages are really there for support, we must remember that if the friends and family do access them in the hopes of feeling love and sympathy, these types of comments are upsetting, damaging and in no way related to the assumed motive of the page creators.

However much the online profile might take the place of a tombstone, the two are very different in many ways. Our comments on these spaces are not whispered, private prayers – they are highly visible to anyone with access to the page.

This line of reasoning begs the question — How do we manage social media grief? Should we have to?

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  • megan

    Is that it? A great introduction and then no substance. It’s a great idea. Support it with an argument. How do we manage social media grief? That’s the question.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=888490174 Elizabeth Joss

    I was also debating the ‘Can we have 50 000 likes for this photo of Reeva pic’. I don’t think the motive was to obtain likes here. I honestly think the motive was to draw awareness to the fact that she was murdered and thousands like her are similarly murdered in SA. I think social media has a powerful way of exposing the many layers of trauma within South Africa and that it CAN work positively towards healing the nation through expression of this trauma, sadness, pain and suffering. I understand that one needs to be considerate and sensitive towards these issues too. However, many South Africans cover up what is happening in the country and refuse to acknowledge. Let me suggest that social media is perhaps useful to expose what is going on – at least if people don’t want to talk about it face to face.

  • Terri-Lee Adendorff

    Hi Megan,

    Thanks for the comment. The article’s intention was more to draw attention the the new “trend” of social media grief, and comment on the sensitivity, or rather lack thereof, that can accompany such an emotionally-loaded development.

    Your comment does highlight something crucial though – that a practical set of “best practice” principles needs to be established. This is something I will definitely write about in the future.

  • http://twitter.com/_AmyJohnson Amy Johnson

    Hi Megan,

    I think Terri quite clearly states what the purpose of the article is – to engage people in commentary. Every person grieves differently, and social media by its very nature cannot be controlled or managed. The author can’t really prescribe how this should be done, but a critique of the status quo is always beneficial in helping us understand our actions in a broader context. We need to pose this question to ourselves. How are we contributing to social media grieving? How will it affect the broader community and are we taking the bereaved family members into consideration?

    Nice article – makes you think :)

  • Terri-Lee Adendorff

    Thanks Amy, I think you’re spot on. What I find most pressing is the question of “should we HAVE to” dictate principles to people on this practice? And I honestly don’t think that “grief management” or “prescribed grief” is something plausible or appropriate. However, I think it could be further discussed, and that’s something I’ll have to think about.

  • Gary Goedals

    I personally find the “Let’s get 50,000 likes for Reeva” pages offensive. If this falls under the banner of grief, we live in a troubled society.

  • Sir Richard III

    Social media will always be for the living. The living’s needs and wants. Maybe that’s why these tributes come across as a tad disingenuous and/or selfish?

    I knew someone who died shortly after we left school. Every year, friends of the young man would post messages on his Facebook wall. Even his mother did a couple of times. Several years after his death, the mother posted one last message to say she had made peace with his passing and was closing the Facebook account as it was too painful a reminder for her to let it continue. Cyber closure?

    Are we more comfortable speaking about the topic of death and dying on social media than in the real world? It doesn’t seem to be about anonymity, if so. And if this is the case, are there any taboos on social media?

    Great article, Terri!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=712446279 Rebecca Johnson

    I don’t agree that the motive for the ‘Can we have 50 000 liked for this photo of Reeva pic’ was to draw awareness to the fact that she was murdered. It’s a distasteful attempt to capitalise on the social influence generated by such a high profile incident. It reminds me of the people who post photos with captions “Can I get 1 million likes so my dad will get me a puppy” and “Can I get 100,000 likes for beating cancer” – these individuals are, in my opinion, taking advantage of people’s good will for their own hidden agendas. This is Kony 2012 all over again. These types of tragedies are viral, they’re emotive and you’ll always have your megalomaniacs trying to piggy-back on the social train that rolls through as a result.

  • http://twitter.com/EvLom Evert Lombaert

    Hey folks, I’m in South Africa and posted this blog for @Ctrl_room – “When your heart stops beating, you’ll keep tweeting” – Soz to spam, but relates to this piece too. Hope you enjoy! http://goo.gl/thxP8

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