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Lessons from Reeva Steenkamp: how social is changing the way we grieve

Tuesday 12 March 2013

Reeva Steenkamp’s death is an absolute tragedy, and that can never be minimised. No matter what the outcome of the complex trial that is unfolding, the international public has united in mutual sympathy and compassion for the Steenkamp family, with condolences and kind words overtaking the public spaces created to honour the memory of a young and talented woman. The purpose of this piece is not to judge the trial or the situation, but to engage in a commentary about the effect that social media has had on bereavement as a whole.

These new online spaces dedicated to Steenkamp multiplied quickly, and their motives are pure enough at a glance — people are compiling pages of tribute, doing their best to feel useful in the midst of grief and helplessness. Maybe, they think, in some small way, they are allowing themselves and others a space to grieve and heal, and to be among others in support of Steenkamp’s family and memory.

This is not a recent development in social media, particularly Facebook. It often happens that, after the death of a friend or relative, those grieving instinctively take to the wall of the deceased, writing messages addressed to them. The Facebook profile of the dearly departed leaves a vestige, a trace of their lives that is still present in the physical world. The profile page acts in much the same way as a tombstone — it is a piece of the world dedicated to the dead. Instead of visiting their grave and whispering a prayer or leaving a flower, we post our deepest feelings of sadness, regret and shock on the wall to lend a catharsis to our sorrow.

Steenkamps’s shocking death prompted the creation of over 25 tribute pages (at last count), and the overwhelming theme of these pages is condolence. There are some troubling aspects at work on some of these pages, however, that must make us question the sensitivity of our new outlet for grief. One of these pages (the most “popular”, if you can use such a word in this context) has posted pictures of Steenkamp, with captions like: “Let’s see if we can get 50 000 likes for this picture of Reeva”.

Those of us who still believe in altruism might think that the motive behind these calls to action are to show those who knew Steenkamp that she is mourned, that she is remembered, that there are thousands of people out there supporting their healing process. To others however it comes across as a clear ploy to capitalise on emotion. Are these pictures there as some kind of bid to situate the page in question as the “best” Reeva Steenkamp tribute? Is our social media grief starting to morph into an opportunity for some? This is a contentious issue that must call us to pay closer attention to our handling of social media remembrance.

A more troubling aspect of these pages is the commenters themselves. While most use these pages as a sincere platform, there are others posting hateful messages towards Oscar Pistorius, swapping conjecture on the case and going into great detail about their imagined version of events. Surely, if these pages are there to show support to the family and friends of the deceased, these kinds of comments are not helpful or appropriate. These comments also serve to accelerate the “trial by media” potential that accompanies high-profile crimes.

The amount of interaction that these comments receive bears testimony to their potential as influencers, and act to skew perceptions of the public, so much so that before any testimony, evidence, prosecution or defence has taken place, the public has made up its mind. If such pages are really there for support, we must remember that if the friends and family do access them in the hopes of feeling love and sympathy, these types of comments are upsetting, damaging and in no way related to the assumed motive of the page creators.

However much the online profile might take the place of a tombstone, the two are very different in many ways. Our comments on these spaces are not whispered, private prayers – they are highly visible to anyone with access to the page.

This line of reasoning begs the question — How do we manage social media grief? Should we have to?

See online: Lessons from Reeva Steenkamp: how social is changing the way we grieve