Comfortably Numb

Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Published on: 09/15/21 6:38 AM

Guest column: Social media as therapist

Social media as therapist

 One has become quite used to the abrasive, abusive nature of certain  social  media platforms,  and  it is with relief that one sees its potentially curative nature. Alongside the political rants, the generic puppies and kittens pics, the humble-brag travel and acquisition posts, I started to see people posting about intensely personal experiences. It could be a less than pleasant trip out of town, the travails of someone willy-nilly pitchforked into navigating matrimonial ads and boy/girl seeing sessions, the pitfalls of dating apps backed by personal, mostly less-than-good experiences.

Then the posts started to make mention of loss. A young woman lost her beloved mother to Covid. Another lost her husband and mother-in-law,  again to the virus. Both posted a set of heartbreaking missives, a virtual update on how they were coping with the tragedy. A third person lost his wife to cancer and posted a tribute which brought tears to the eyes of those reading it. Yet another poster, newly bereaved, shared a son`s moving tribute to his father, her late husband.

Since I can clearly recall the time when intense grief was usually a private affair, I would be lying if I said these very private posts didn`t  startle me at first. But the more I thought about it, the more sense it seemed to make. If people are forever commenting on matters that are quite trivial and which usually had nothing to do with them, then it made sense for those people to share in the grief  of those they knew/those they didn’t know personally but admired for professional reasons/those who they followed on social media platforms.

Grief touches a chord in all our hearts, and condoling with or consoling someone becomes more than a mechanical act, it becomes a salutary act of empathy, an outpour of  there-but-for-the-grace-of god-go-I sympathy. Sometimes, the bereaved person is really not up to taking endless condolence calls and mouthing the same painful details over and over again. Sometimes, the one who would condole is at a loss for words. It is at times like these when social media comes into its own.

Most of these personal loss posts are usually marked only for friends but a few posters do reach out to the world at large. A Bangalore-based psychologist says this is a way of coping with what has hit them broadside, and as a coping strategy if it works, then all is good. The idea of what is personal and private has shifted with every generation,  as also with the changes in social media technology. When people share accounts of loss online, depending on what they are looking for, what their motivation is, some type of catharsis could well kick in. Those reading the posts might also experience a corresponding catharsis. The downside is, what these posters get in response (likes, comments, memes) may not be as meaningful as they would want.

Ludhiana-based psychiatrist Dr Anirudh Kala says such sharing helps most when the loss is mutual,  when the other person is a close friend or professional therapist. Grief being not just a very personal thing but also an intra-psychic process, it cannot really help if the  people  with whom the grief is shared do not know the loved one who is gone and perhaps do not even know the person who is sharing too well.

These posts of grief are less about validation than they are about comfort and consolation. And of course, they are a venthole. Disparagement may be part of the reaction but most of the posters factor that in. The equation usually runs thusly: a certain amount of sensitivity is shown by the poster: a certain amount of sensitivity is expected from the reader of the  posts: the rest is collateral damage. The last is inevitable because, let us not forget, the responders are mostly a collective/ faceless/ unknown entity.

In this day and age, personal milestones like a newborn baby,  the acquisition of a new home or set of wheels, a trip to somewhere exotic, a new-found love, a break-up, bereavement,  are all grist to the social media mill. They are more acts of disclosure than anything else, and sometimes they  do give the poster a sense of closure.

This appeared in the Sunday Express Magazine of 12 Sept 2021.

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Sheila Kumar • September 15, 2021

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