USA Today quotes Servaty-Seib on grief expressions in social media

‘TikTok is what helped me stay alive’: How the social platform is helping a new generation cope with death

Heather Servaty-Seib
Vice Provost for Teaching & Learning
Professor of Counseling Psychology

Midori Anderson and Orlando Foreman met on Tinder in the summer of 2019 when they were students at the University of Arkansas. That November, he brought her flowers and tried to spell out “will you be my girlfriend?” in rose petals on her bed but ran out of space. She keeps the card he gave her in her wallet: “I did not want to eat your mom’s greens without us being official.”

He was Anderson’s first boyfriend. After she graduated in 2020, Foreman helped her move home to Plano, Texas, then returned for his senior year.

When he visited one weekend in September, they went out to dinner. On the ride home, Foreman slumped over. She rushed him to the hospital but he died that night. An autopsy showed that the 23-year-old, Romanian-born student had a blockage to his heart.

Anderson was left alone in her apartment, his toothbrush and contact lens case on the sink, his shirts hanging in the closet.

“I feel like when he died, I got lost. I lost my person. I lost someone that I told everything to,” said Anderson, 24.

She made a TikTok video: “A Day in a Life of a Grieving Girlfriend.” It got 900,000 likes.

“TikTok made me feel like I was being heard by somebody,” she said.

That’s where she packed a memory box for Foreman, showed off her new tattoo (“dragosteamea,” my love in Romanian) and observed the one-year anniversary of his death.

“Besides my mom and a therapist, TikTok is what helped me stay alive during one of the hardest times in my life,” Anderson said.

How we share heartbreak on TikTok

TikTok is helping a new generation cope with death and loss.

Young people share deeply personal and vulnerable moments of heartbreak in short-form videos, creating a sense of community and easing loneliness, grief experts say.

With hashtags like #grieftok, #griefjourney, #grief, #griefandloss and #loss, raw sorrow mingles with celebrations of life on TikTok.

Videos include a daughter missing her mom, who died after a nine-year struggle with lung cancer, and her brother, who was diagnosed with lymphoma that same night and died seven months later. Another shows a mother releasing butterflies in memory of her young daughter who died of cancer.

“On TikTok they’re very open,” said Moa Eriksson Krutrök, an associate professor in media and communications at Umeå University in Sweden. “People are sharing their innermost selves.”

According to Krutrök, the secret sauce is TikTok’s “For You” feed which is curated by recommendation algorithms.

In some cases, those algorithms have sent people down dark rabbit holes. TikTok says it has retrained its algorithms to recognize potentially harmful patterns and keep people from spiraling into sadness. TikTok also lets users filter out videos with words or hashtags they don’t want to see in their “For You” or “Following” feeds.

“These algorithms (connect us) to other people that might be feeling the same way as are,” Krutrök said.

‘A comfort I never thought I could receive from millions of strangers’

TikTok was all K-pop for Lisa Lu before she responded to a callout from the mega-stargroup BTS to create a video using the song “Life Goes On.”

Around 2 a.m., Lu posted a 40-second video showing Chiu through the years: grainy home footage of her as a young mom with Lu; Chiu beaming at the camera after her hair fell out; a close-up of her fastening a necklace around Lu’s neck on her wedding day.

“Something she always taught me as she was passing was that the best thing I could do forher was to move on and go onward. And that’s how I can honor her and this life she gave us,” Lu said. “Knowing all of that, I was able to pour my heart out into this video.”

Lu woke up to thousands of comments and likes.

“People kept commenting on her beautiful smile and how much they could see the love in my mom’s eyes,” Lu said. “That in itself was a comfort I never thought I could receive from millions of strangers.”

With Facebook, Instagram, grief was no longer invisible

Because of social media, public expressions of grief are no longer seen as taboo, says Heather Servaty-Seib, a counseling psychology professor who leads the grief and loss research team at Purdue.

“There’s potential for it to make grief and loss more talkable,” she said.

Seeking out human connection on Facebook or TikTok became even more common during COVID as people coped with loss while grieving from a distance, says Chinasa Elue, anassociate professor of educational leadership and higher education at Kennesaw State University in Georgia.

Elue began researching grief after her mother died in early 2019, nine months before the nation entered lockdowns. She said she found solace in turning to Instagram.

“After the dust settles, after people stopped showing up with the meals, after the funeral is over, a lot of times we’re left alone to really deal with the hard work of grieving,” Elue said.“The online spaces, especially in the midst of the pandemic, provided a very important outlet for people to be able to really share their own grief journey.”

Vivian Nunez lived the difference between grieving with social media and without it.

Nunez was in elementary school in 2003 when her mom died. A shy kid growing up in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City and part of an Ecuadorian American family that did not openly discuss loss, she confided her feelings in a journal.

“I felt like that was the only way I was going to feel comforted by someone who got me,” she says. “There was no way for me to connect with other people.”

In her senior year of college when she was 21, her grandmother who was like a second mother died, too. Nunez couldn’t bear to feel so alone again. She started an Instagram account in 2014.

At the time, few Instagram accounts were openly talking about death and loss. She made lifelong connections through Instagram. That led to therapy for anxiety and depression and a career focused on grief and well-being.

“The internet democratized grief,” said Nunez, 29, a writer, content creator and host of the podcast “Happy to Be Here.” “It was no longer just these experiences you could talk about in small therapy groups that may not be affordable for a lot of people. It was free, it was accessible and it was as vulnerable as you could get.”

‘I know what it’s like to go into that black hole of grief’

When Carolyn Moor’s husband Chad, an architect, was killed in a hit-and-run collision while they were driving home from a dinner on Valentine’s Day in 2000, she was suddenly alone at 37 with two young daughters.

“I know what it’s like to go into the black hole of grief. You have this experience. You leave the hospital. You leave with whatever brochures are handed to you, maybe from the funeral home, and good luck with that,” said Moor, 59, who lives in Orlando, Florida.

After appearing on Oprah Winfrey’s TV show to talk about grief, other widows began reaching out. She founded the
Modern Widows Club and held meetings in her living room.

The turning point for the organization came in 2011 when it joined Facebook and in 2014 when it joined Instagram. Both platforms made it easier for widows, even from remote areas, to connect.

“It is such a lifesaver,” says Sabra Robinson, who was widowed in 2012 after her husband died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

When she couldn’t find a grief support group for Black widows, she started her own. Its ranks surged during COVID.

Members gather in a private Facebook group to speak openly about loss or to get tips on Social Security benefits, even dating. “Tickle Me Tuesday” where widows post funny memes and live “Friday Night Joy” sessions buoy spirits.

“It is something that has actually saved the lives of many women,” said Robinson, founder of Black Women Widows Empowered who lives in Charlotte, North Carolina.

YouTube changes how we think about grief

Social media has become a supportive place to grieve all kinds of losses, says YouTuber and licensed therapist Kati Morton.

“I think we’ve often been told that grief is just something that happens when someone dies,”Morton said. But “we can grieve a lot of things.” A breakup. A job loss. Even the social isolation during the pandemic.

“I think that people are just feeling good to actually hear that other people are going through something similar, that they’re not alone and that there is a word to put to it,” Morton said.

For Molly Burke, a YouTuber who is legally blind, that means mourning the death of her guide dogs. At 28, she’s already had to say goodbye to three and struggles with the inevitability of losing more.

“They are just so much more than an animal to us. They are literally a lifeline,” Burke said.“If I don’t have my dog, I am significantly less independent. My confidence certainly goes down. How safe and secure I feel plummets.”

While she made the video to help others, Burke said she also helped herself.

“It’s almost like therapy, you know?” she said. “You just kind of start unraveling your own thoughts.”

Grieving on TikTok is no substitute for therapy

TikTok is not a substitute for professional help, says licensed clinical social worker Jacqueline Garcia, who has more than 67,000 followers who watch her videos on mental health. Most people need more than 30-second videos to work through their feelings. And not everyone handing out advice on TikTok is an expert.

“Grief doesn’t look pretty, it doesn’t feel pretty. It can definitely be such a scary thing to experience,” she said. “My strong recommendation is if you are grieving, try your best to find a therapist. (Social media) is not therapy.”

And, just like any online space, GriefTok has a dark side.

Dr. Serign Marong, 43, a family doctor from Tucson, Arizona, began posting TikToks after his first wife died in 2014 from a blood clot in her lungs.

He said 99% of responses have been positive, with many users chiming in with their own experiences. But there have also been hurtful comments.

“Some people wanted to get snarky on there and say things like, ‘Oh, I bet she had the COVID vaccine,’” he said, even though his wife died years before the pandemic.

But Marong says being so open on TikTok became a pivotal part of his grieving process.

“There was a point where it was really dark for me. I had suicidal thoughts,” Marong said. “I remember at one point it came down to, what did I want my legacy to be?” he said, referring to his children. “Once I started processing things and talking about things with people, I kind of got some motivation back.”

Original Story: USA TODAY, Sept. 8, 2022