When the rabbis, priests, imams and mystics created religious rules and customs surrounding loss and mourning, they did so with varying approaches to respecting the dead and creating the structures for mourners to reconnect to local community.
But they never saw the Internet coming.
Beyond the religious texts and self-help books, the Internet has vastly expanded the conversation about death, grief and life after loss. The Internet has become a place where circles of grief and expression of loss expand with every click, and consequently, so have the resources in which community and consolation may lie.
Because of the Internet, we have access to poignant stories surrounding grief, from cancer doctor , who started lying to his wife about her condition in her final days, to comedian Laurie Kilmartin, whose tweets chronicled her father’s final decline. When actor Corbin Bernsen lost his mother, he shared his reflections on his Christian faith and his life after loss via Facebook posts. After her father died in April, actress Mayim Bialik wrote about her perspectives on grief and mourning, and how it fit into her life as a Jew, as a daughter and as a parent. And of course, as many of us saw in our social media feeds this week, when Sheryl Sandberg completed shloshim (a period of 30 days of mourning in the Jewish tradition) for her husband David Goldberg, who died suddenly about a month ago, she shared her lengthy and poignant reflections on loss with the entirety of the Facebook audience.
“I think when tragedy occurs, it presents a choice,” Sandberg wrote. “You can give in to the void, the emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even breathe. Or you can try to find meaning. These past thirty days, I have spent many of my moments lost in that void. And I know that many future moments will be consumed by the vast emptiness as well. But when I can, I want to choose life and meaning.”
Acts of public sharing during these most vulnerable moments reveal our shared mortality, our fears, our most honest selves; the people who share these narratives take a step forward toward their own future. During a time when they could easily sink into depression, they choose life. And the life that they are choosing is not just their own, but something more universal.
After the death of my mother in 2011, I observed shiva, shloshim and the full 12 months traditionally mandated by Judaism. I said kaddish daily (give or take a handful of times). I connected with local community. I juggled “how are yous,” made excuses to not go out with friends, and sometimes, made excuses to go out with friends. I wrote eulogies and articles, and learned to “address the elephant,” as Sandberg called it - absorbing any anticipated awkwardness by stating my status overtly and empowering others to ask their questions without fear of offending.
I shared commentary on life after loss, its intense sadness, its social awkwardness and even its bizarrely dark humor, with my online community. The sheer act of reaching into a void and sharing brought me some comfort – but what surprised me was that the void reached back. People I knew through my wider circle stepped forward through the lens of their own losses, to embrace the shaky new version of myself that I’d become, and to tell me that although things would never be the same, I would be okay.
As I moved forward – not “through,” never “past” – into the grief, I found people and programs to support me. I gravitated toward friends who had lost a parent, standing with them during high-intensity High Holidays moments. I found ModernLoss.com, an online effort to create the resources that its young founders had needed during their own tragic losses, and TheDinnerParty.org, built around the concept of in-person dinner gatherings that help mourners to share memories and struggles around loss. And I found gratitude – like Sandberg did – for those who provided strength when my own was compromised.
Beyond my own grief process, I noticed that people were also seeking out my advice - they had questions about helping friends and relatives who were grieving, or who were anticipating a loss. How could they be supportive? What did I find helpful? To be thought of as a helpful resource for people in pain seemed to me an honor, and helped me to move forward in my life while helping others to choose life for themselves. It’s also the kind of honor that I believe also honors my mother and the lessons she taught me.
When Sandberg writes about her husband, she honors their relationship and brings their life together into a more public space, allowing those of us who didn’t know him, and probably don’t even know her, to know them a little bit. And from the reception that Sandberg’s posts have received thus far, I have a sense that people will continue to look to her as a powerful voice in the emerging conversations about managing loss, especially in this space of the Internet where she works and lives.
But whether we are celebrities or civilians, the Internet helps us to shout our grief into a cruel world, and it helps the world to extend offerings in return. Sometimes these gifts are made of words that heal, that help when articulated and vocalized by a familiar or even an unfamiliar voice. Sometimes wordlessness feels like a more honest and pure acknowledgment of a changed world. Silence isn’t always defeat. Sometimes silence is choosing life.
Thanks to the Internet’s infinite space, our voices, speaking pain and truth to try to heal ourselves, can reach and help others we’ve never met, simultaneously widening the potential reach of our own reconnection and consolation. Our cries will help us to move forward, and will reach others who need them. And so, we hope, will our words of comfort.
May the memories of those we’ve lost continue to bless and inspire us.
Esther D. Kustanowitz, who is based in Los Angeles, writes about culture, community, media and creativity. She is working on a book, tentatively titled “Nothing Helps (But This Might Help): Loss and What Comes After,” a collection of reflections and wisdom about life after loss.
Esther D. Kustanowitz is a Los Angeles-based writer, editor and consultant. She co-hosts The Bagel Report, a podcast about Jews and popular culture, and speaks about #TVGoneJewy, a term she invented to describe the increase of Jewish content on television. Follow her on Twitter @EstherK.
Why Sheryl Sandberg Is Choosing Life by Sharing Grief