My husband was pronounced dead at 10:12 am on February 4, 2017. At 7:08 pm, I shared the news on Facebook.
“My amazing, wonderful, hilarious, brilliant, generous, soulmate of a husband Jamie Hawkins-Gaar passed away this morning,” I wrote. I posted the awful update from my couch, with a friend looking over my shoulder to catch any typos. “He was running a half marathon and collapsed less than a mile away from the finish. He was completely healthy (finished his first half just two weeks before like a champion!) and it’s totally incomprehensible. I can’t really think to the next minute, but I’m supported and surrounded by loved ones right now.”
Within minutes, there were hundreds of comments, and dozens of people shared the news within their own circles. Word about Jamie’s death spread quickly, and the reactions were comforting in their sameness: This is so incomprehensible. I’m so sorry. I don’t know what to say.
Jamie was 32, and to call his death unexpected is a gross understatement. In the almost two years since he died, I’ve written 117 Facebook posts about grief, totaling nearly 22,000 words. Some were short, just a sentence and a photo; others were several paragraphs long. Some posts were utterly hopeless and depressing; others held at least a glimmer of optimism. Every single post helped me process such a traumatic loss.
Chances are you’ve seen at least one acquaintance announce recently that they’re quitting Facebook. Their reasons are completely legitimate: Privacy scandals, addictiveness, fake news, unrealistic depictions of people’s lives, vitriolic comments, and so on plague the Facebook experience.
I get it. There’s a lot that’s bad about Facebook. But since my husband passed away, I’ve learned how beneficial social media can be when facing a major loss. Facebook gave me a way to share updates with friends and family when doing so in person was too difficult. And my Facebook friends offered me plenty in return: book suggestions, introductions to other widows and widowers, thoughtful messages and encouraging comments, and more “love” reactions than I could count.
Grieving is emotionally exhausting. It’s what makes the ease and impersonality of social media so helpful.
Facebook was how, four days after Jamie’s death, friends knew to gather at an impromptu memorial at his favorite brewery in St. Petersburg, Florida, where we lived. It was how I communicated to hundreds of people the time and place of his funeral in Atlanta. It’s how, months later, I informed everyone that we had finally received the cause of death: fibromuscular dysplasia, a rare and often undiagnosed condition that causes narrowing and twisting of the arteries. In Jamie’s case, it affected his heart.
Old-fashioned forms of communication still make sense for most of life’s milestones. There’s generally some advance notice before a wedding or birth — time to gather addresses, pick out stationery, send emails, make calls. But it’s hard to imagine spreading the word about Jamie’s sudden death and coordinating the details of his memorials more quickly and effectively than Facebook allowed me to.
In the hours after he died, I called as many close friends and family as I could, but doing so was incredibly emotionally draining. Face-to-face conversations were even worse. The ability to tell hundreds of acquaintances about my husband’s death with one post was exactly what I needed. Facebook is rightly criticized as being impersonal, but that can work to your advantage when you’re worn out and have to quickly reach as many people as possible.
Logistics aside, Facebook also offered an outlet to share my grief. In the disorienting weeks and months after Jamie died, I’d go online to process my emotions, sharing how overwhelmed and alone I felt. As comments started rolling in, I’d feel a little less overwhelmed and a lot less alone. Grieving left me exhausted and averse to spending time with friends, but I worried about becoming isolated. Facebook allowed me to stay connected when I was too heartbroken to do much else.
My relationship with Facebook was and still is, fittingly, complicated. If I spent too much time scrolling through airbrushed, superficial posts, I wound up feeling even more depressed and hopeless than I already was. But when I used it to communicate with others, I felt lighter. Facebook asked me, “What’s on your mind?” and I answered honestly. I’d write about how detached I felt, how scary the future seemed, and how haunted I was by the fragility of life. I sometimes worried my posts were blemishes in a sea of happy updates, but I was encouraged by the people who reached out and told me they appreciated my openness.
Joining a Facebook group of other widows was a godsend
Before long, I joined a Facebook group that became my saving grace. The playfully named Hot Young Widows Club was just what I needed — an online group for widows and widowers who’d lost their partners early in life. When I joined, there were a couple hundred other members who knew the hell I was going through. I was greeted with the same introduction that all newcomers receive: “We are so sorry you qualify to be here, but we’re so thankful you found us.”
Through this online community, I made some wonderful real-life friends. One of those friends is Maggie Williams Dryden, who became a widow and solo parent at 35 when her husband, Eric, died from an undiagnosed pulmonary embolism in June 2016. Dryden is now a Hot Young Widows Club moderator and co-leads a couple of other secret Facebook groups for widows and widowers where she cheers on other members and regularly shares the ups and downs of her widowhood journey.
Dryden has formed several real-life friendships with other young widows and widowers. “When you share something this significant, you can grow very close really fast,” she explained. She and her daughter went on a week-long vacation last April with another mother-daughter pair she met through the group.
Whether in private groups or on my personal page, I’ve learned so much from being vulnerable on a platform designed for cheery surface-level life updates. Dryden agrees. “Grief isn’t a popular topic, but it’s something that most people will experience in their lives,” she said. “It is important to talk about it, so that when it happens to you, you know that you’re not crazy and you’re not alone — you’re just grieving.”
It’s tempting to announce that you don’t need Facebook and its problematic News Feed. Many people who’ve done so say they haven’t looked back, that life is better and freer without such a depressing distraction in their lives. I understand the appeal. I’ve significantly cut down the time I spend on social media over the past year, and I feel happier as a result.
But I doubt I’ll ever delete my account. The benefits I’ve gained from grieving openly on the platform are immeasurable. Friends tell me it’s helped them too.
“When I first started sharing, it was for me, and while it still is, I’ve learned that it’s also for everyone else,” Dryden said. “This is how we all grow, together.”
Katie Hawkins-Gaar is a freelance writer and leads Poynter’s Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media. She has a weekly newsletter, My Sweet Dumb Brain, that’s all about navigating life’s ups and downs.