Digital Grief During The Covid-19 Pandemic

On the morning of February 24, previously only known to me as Twin Peaks day, I found out that my grandfather had passed away via Facebook. Because he lived in Rome and we’re in a global pandemic that imposes travel restrictions and quarantines, I was not able to make it to the funeral and to say goodbye. I hadn’t seen him since early 2020. I am still grieving, and will for quite a while, but through this post, I share my experiences of digital grief and loss during the Covid-19 pandemic, because it’s interesting to me as a social media researcher and because I hope that whoever went through similar experiences will feel less alone in reading this.

Picture by: Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash

Digital goodbyes

I found out my grandpa – Nonno, as we say in Italian – had passed away via Facebook. Throughout the weeks that preceded his passing, I was fidgety and wasn’t able to relax. I didn’t know why, but my guess is that some of my mum’s anxiety over her father’s health was rubbing off on me. She didn’t say much other than he was getting worse, but because Nonno was 92 and a trooper, I somehow struggled to believe he wouldn’t fight even this moment out.

The last time I had seen Nonno was in December 2019. He and Nonna live in Rome, where my mum grew up, while my parents and I live in Sardinia. When Covid struck in March 2020, even my mum couldn’t see her parents for over three months. In the summer she went over to help, but I avoided it because, given that I travelled and saw more people than my parents did, I was afraid it’d be unsafe for me to stay over in my grandparents’ house.

Me, my grandparents and my cousin in Sardinia in the mid-90s.

Nonno was very sweet and friendly. He loved having people around, particularly his grandchildren. He was also very old-fashioned and increasingly deaf, meaning that, particularly after I moved to London and became an adult with a life so different from the one he led, we didn’t have so much to talk about. He was always very supportive though, and was somehow more concerned about my nose ring than about my butt-naked pole dancing. The last time I spoke to him, a few weeks before he died, we had a FaceTime chat when mum video called me and asked me to show Nonno a few upside down moves. He was very proud, and called his carer to show her how good he thought I was.

I didn’t know that was going to be the last time I would ever speak to him. I hope that the last chats we had on FaceTime and through WhatsApp voice notes, through which he screamed “Carolinaaaaaaaaaa?” into the phone thinking I’d respond like on a phone call, helped him understand that the fact I wasn’t there didn’t mean I didn’t love him.

Digital loss: Finding out about death via social media

I found out about Nonno’s death via Facebook, and that’s not how I or my immediate family wanted me to find out. My mum would have liked to call me and break the news to me, but that’s not what happened on the day.

Picture by: @brett_jordan on Unsplash

Even though she’s retired, my mother’s body clock still works on a flight attendant schedule – she’s usually up by 5 AM. Because of this, she’d send me lots of voice notes just to chat, hours before I woke up. Especially when I moved to Australia and we were on different time zones, that triggered my anxiety, because I always assumed something awful had happened. So we have an agreement that I should be the first to write when I wake up.

I generally write to my mum after I’ve checked emails and notifications in the morning. That morning, I opened up my Facebook to see a close relative post a picture of Nonno, with a goodbye message. I immediately shut the app down and called my mum in tears. She confirmed.

Losing a relative hurts, no matter how you find out about it. But finding out via Facebook, without knowing the circumstances of how it happened, felt like an extra layer of disconnection from family, from reality and from humanity: I tend to keep the most personal aspects of my life away from social media, and having the line between public and private blur without me choosing to do so felt even more disempowering.

Digital grief: Grieving (partly) through social media

I do think that my relative could have waited until the most immediate family had informed everyone of Nonno’s passing before posting a Facebook status. But also, I understand that grieving through social media is now part of life. Particularly when expressions of grief through big vigils or funerals aren’t allowed because of Covid-19, it’s understandable that people would want to share their grief online.

Plus, who am I to say how other people should grieve and communicate their grief? I myself grieved through a public post, although I waited to post it to ensure everybody had been warned about Nonno’s death. I am, after all, a digital native: a lot of my life is lived through social media. While social media can also be very performative, writing an online eulogy when I couldn’t say my goodbyes at the funeral felt like a way to feel my absence a bit less.

I am not a huge fan of memorial pages and of public grieving. This is not because there’s anything wrong with them – it’s more because I have a PhD in online abuse and have seen horrible cases of trolling on memorial pages. Because of this, and because I don’t like how sad stories are somehow broadcasted better by social media algorithms, I was debating whether to post anything.

However, I have a growing social media platform and I often speak out on a variety of social justice related issues. The week that Nonno died, I didn’t feel like speaking out, and I didn’t want be asked to when I was grieving. I wanted to tell people who followed me that if I was silent or if I made mistakes, it wasn’t because I didn’t care, but because I was out of it.

What became really clear on social media was the split between considerate people and brands who think of you as a human, and people and brands who only see you as a grid of pictures. Shout out to the amazing Pole Junkie team who personally messaged me and commented with their condolences. Bit less impressed with people DMing me random mundane requests, others telling me: “YOU SHOULD WRITE ABOUT [insert social justice issue]!” and other brands who messaged me pushing for reviews – after I had already delivered on everything we’d agreed on – with no mention of what was going on in my stories or personal page. To make it all worse, when all of this was going on, TikTok kept deleting my profile on and off due to mass flagging and trolling at the hands of people they did not do much to protect me from.

It didn’t seem like a great week in social media land, but after the outpouring of support and love I received I felt a bit less worried about being always on. Still, it definitely felt weird to go back to my ordinary business of posting ass. I had things to promote and to share, and it was yet another example of how, even after death, life still goes on. I went on to grieve privately, because I wanted to have time to reflect on my grief. I am still grieving.

Loss, grief and guilt during the pandemic

Grandparents are important for everyone, but they are a staple of Italian culture, the pillar on which so many of our memories lie. Care for the elderly is, for Italians, a key value inherited from the Latin pietas, the virtue to do your duty towards your parents and elders. Our grandparents lived through World War II, through Italy becoming a republic, through the battles for workers’ rights and through the Baby boom. They are a piece of national and personal history, and they’re the ones who often take on childcare when parents have to work. There’s a reason why Italy was initially so ravaged by Covid: grandparents often live in the same building as their grandchildren and as their families. The bond Italians have with their grandparents is so famous that you see it in pop culture all over the world.

When I first spoke to my mother after finding out about Nonno, I remember crying and saying: “What do I do?”

I really wanted to be there for my family. I wanted to hold my mother at her father’s funeral. I wanted to hold my Nonna, who’s not one for cuddles, but who had lost the love of her life. Yet, that wasn’t possible. If I’d gone, I would have had to quarantine. I wouldn’t even been able to get test results back in time to travel for the funeral. I had to stay here in London.

Many people say that funerals are for the living. Despite growing up in a Catholic country, I dislike Catholic funerals deeply, because more often than not priests who know nothing about the people you’ve lost will go on about how good a Christian they were. They seem impersonal, a performance of grief and of piety. Despite all of this, every time I think about Nonno’s funeral, and Nonno in general, I think: “You weren’t there.” You weren’t there in his last few months, and you weren’t there for his funeral.

I know that neither my mum or Nonna blame me for this. And I know that Nonno knew I loved him. But not being there for my family during such a hard time, particularly knowing how loved my grandpa was and how ‘big’ a send-off his funeral would have been without Covid, really hurts.

I feel that by not going to the funeral and by not showing up in 2020, despite the risks related to visiting the elderly, I have failed Nonno and my family personally, and my role as an Italian granddaughter more generally. I feel guilty, and it’s a guilt I’ll forever carry with me, even if it wasn’t reasonable for me to go. Weirdly, I also go through times when I forget he’s gone, because I haven’t seen him, and I haven’t said goodbye in person. Then I realise, and I have to relive the grief all over again.

My grandparents and me, aged 11, during my really awful Avril Lavigne phase.

Hopes and fears

I don’t have a particularly uplifting ending to this post, if not that I ended up doing my own little witchy goodbye ritual, saying goodbye to Nonno and speaking to him like I hadn’t managed to do in a long time.

I am not the first or the last person to have to grieve digitally and at a distance because of this harrowing pandemic that is stripping us of our humanity and of the ability to be with our loved ones.

At the moment, I am scared I will lose more people without being able to say goodbye to them. I am afraid of the uncertainty that comes with the exit from lockdowns. And while it may seem obvious and naive to hope for easier, less painful times, that’s all I’m hoping for right now.

Helpful Links

I have decided to share my experience of grief through social media as a form of self-expression, because I like sharing things with my community and to help others feel less alone. However, I’m not a qualified therapist and I am still grieving myself – I am not ready to personally help with your grief.

If you are struggling with your mental health following a loss, grief or for any other reasons, heare are a few organisations to contact:

  • CALM, the Campaign Against Living Miserably. A charity providing a mental health helpline and webchat. Phone: 0800 58 58 58 (daily, 5pm to midnight)
  • Mind, who can offer free therapy (I once did a very helpful therapy cycle with them). Phone: 0300 123 3393 (Monday to Friday, 9am to 6pm);
  • Samaritans, a confidential support for people experiencing feelings of distress or despair. Phone: 116 123 (free 24-hour helpline) – these guys have honestly saved me a couple of times in the past already;
  • SANE, which provides emotional support, information and guidance for people affected by mental illness, their families and carers;
  • Cruse Bereavement Care. Phone: 0808 808 1677 (Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm).

This is by no means an exhaustive list, and now that I can afford at least a session per month, I book therapy with Healingclouds, which I reviewed here. Hang in there <3

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