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mourning online

Death in the digital age: How does social media affect children's grief?

“When you’re online, you don’t get to choose who to edit out.”

EVERYONE WILL BE faced with bereavement at some stage in their life, but the digital age has changed how many of us grieve.

A heartfelt status on social media about a loved one who has passed away can provide relief for someone adrift with grief.

Others find it hard to comprehend sharing such a private emotion so publicly.

Are likes and comments the new handshakes and hugs, particularly for young people?

“It’s making a big difference to how people grieve,” David Trickey told, noting how it’s becoming increasingly common to hear about someone’s death online.

The clinical psychologist said that social media has “great potential … but also huge risks” when it comes to the subject of death.

While outlets like Facebook “can certainly be a force for good” by acting as a platform for support and an “ongoing memorial” for someone who has passed away, Trickey notes that the main downside to sharing information online is losing control of who sees it and where it ends up.

This can be especially difficult for children and young people.

[Once something is posted online] you don’t control that information, who knows about it, who’s going to see it and comment on it. People can’t help themselves but read the comments. If you’re telling a friend in the playground that your dad has died and they say something you don’t like, you can turn away. When you’re online, you don’t get to choose who to edit out.

Trickey deals specifically with how traumatic bereavement affects children.

Much of his work is dedicated to helping families support children who have lost someone in a traumatic way or sudden way, such as homicide, suicide or traffic accident.

In his experience, many families often wish to shield a child from the truth behind a traumatic death, only for the young person to find out through a third party or online.

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So is honesty always the best policy in this regard?

“Yeah is the simple answer to that question. Obviously the family knows the child best but children always find out at some point. A traumatic, sudden death is often reported in the media, it’s going to be online indefinitely. It’s better to hear it from their family rather than hearing it on the playground from their mates.”

Trickey said that while he completely accepts “it’s really difficult to tell kids this kind of stuff”, it’s better to be “in control” of the information.

I’ve never met a child who didn’t find out [the truth] … When they’re older they will Google themselves and we need to be prepared for that.

Naturally, Trickey recommends that the amount of information you tell the child is adapted depending on their age. This important thing, he stresses, is that the young person is aware they can always ask questions about the death, which are likely to become more detailed as they age.

Trauma is relative

Trickey helps children process their grief, something that can be stunted by the circumstances surrounding a death.

“If the way the person died is perceived as tragic, that can get in way of grief,” he noted.

When it comes to helping young people work through a bereavement, Trickey said that one must never assume how a child is feeling.

He stated that while it’s easy to see how a death caused by a homicide or suicide is traumatic, an elderly granny dying peacefully in her sleep could also deeply affect someone.

“The child may then think ‘Mummy’s going to die, everyone’s going to die’,” Trickey said, noting the importance of open communication between adults and children when dealing with grief.

Bereavement Conference

Trickey, who is based in the UK, will be one of several speakers at the Irish Childhood Bereavement Network (ICBN) Conference, due to be held in Dublin today.

Orla Keegan, Head of Education, Research and Bereavement Services with the Irish Hospice Foundation, is also set to speak at the event, under the overall theme of ‘Death in the Digital Age’.

Speaking to ahead of the conference, Keegan commented that all families must “acknowledge that grief is normal”.

Parents, youth workers and other people in a child’s life need to be able to talk to them about grief.

She added that it was becoming increasingly normal for young people to receive support from their peers through social media, noting: “We need to be able to understand their world.”

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While some grieving children may need therapy, Keegan said that most just “require a trusted environment” to be provided by their family and friends.

At the conference, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, James Reilly, is set to launch the ICBN’s Childhood Bereavement Care Pyramid, a framework to guide bereavement support for children and young people.

Keegan stressed the importance of organisations working with parents, guardians, social workers or whoever is involved in the child’s life.

“One of the problems with children’s care is that people often think we really ought to be adding someone else to the mix … we should instead ask who’s already involved that they trust … It’s about tailoring responses to children’s needs,” she added.

For more information on support for children or young people dealing with grief, contact the Irish Childhood Bereavement Network, Barnardos or Rainbows.

Column: Young people are the “forgotten mourners”

Opinion: A loved one’s death is devastating, but you must allow yourself to rebuild your life

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