Is the Internet Helping Americans Talk About Death?

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Oliver Sacks is dying. The beloved neurologist wrote an incredibly clear-eyed piece about his diagnosis for the New York Times, which speaks in honest, direct language about the way he wants to exit the world. It’s both uplifting and devastating when he addresses the unique tragedy of each loss as only a scientist can.

My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself. There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.

At the Times, the comments are flooding in, and most of them are painfully expressive, with people talking about their own experiences with terminal illnesses, facing mortality, and dealing with the inevitable end. This outpouring is not unusual for the comment threads that pop up beneath articles about death and dying. I admit to having a habit of reading these threads, often until they pull the tears from my eyes.

To me, they are an indicator of a society that doesn’t know how to talk about death. We avoid it because of the way it disrupts our productivity, our normalcy, our daily search for an escape from the truth of our short lives. Thus, people bring their experience of having what Sacks calls “holes that cannot be filled” to the proliferating supply of personal essays about grief. They read them with such relief that they are not alone and then respond with the need to tell their stories and testify to their pain and fear about facing their own, or a loved one’s, terminal illness and death.

When celebrities or other icons die, Twitter fills up with the usual platitudes from those who didn’t know the person. He or she was one of the greats. Too soon. We’ve all lost someone today. For that kind of collective mourning, ranging from trite to profound, there’s instant community online. But for the group whom Cheryl Strayed dubs “people who’d had the experience of losing someone whose death made them think, I cannot continue to live,” the web provides an even deeper sense of community. It’s not specifically on Twitter or even Facebook (their year in review snafu, which broke the hearts of mourners, isn’t easily forgotten). Instead, it coalesces around the many avenues for storytelling we encounter online: blogs, websites that publish essays, and comments sections. Story-sharing can alleviate the burden society at large puts on those who are grieving or struggling with their own mortality. And just as abortion and rape storytelling makes inroads against stigma and loneliness, so does grief storytelling work against another sort of stigma we’ve created around loss.

Strayed’s essay “The Love of My Life” is the precursor to Wild, about how she numbed her grief over her mom’s death with casual sex and heroin. But it has also become my go-to resource for talking about grief in American society, or more specifically how we fail to do so. She writes that our lack of ritualized mourning puts a massive, almost unbearable, weight on the individual mourner.

After her funeral, I immediately went back to school because she had begged me to do so. It was the beginning of a new quarter. In most of my classes, we were asked to introduce ourselves and say what we had done over the break. “My name is Cheryl,” I said. “I went to Mexico.” I lied not to protect myself, but because it would have been rude not to. To express loss on that level is to cross a boundary, to violate personal space, to impose emotion in a nonemotional place. ….If, as a culture, we don’t bear witness to grief, the burden of loss is placed entirely upon the bereaved, while the rest of us avert our eyes and wait for those in mourning to stop being sad, to let go, to move on, to cheer up. And if they don’t — if they have loved too deeply, if they do wake each morning thinking,I cannot continue to live — well, then we pathologize their pain; we call their suffering a disease.

Yet since she wrote her piece, the Internet has slowly begun to normalize the fact that there is no “normal” way to mourn. Just recently, the Times also published the account of a therapist who had to move, for his own sake and his patients’, past the idea of “stages of grief.” “The truth is that grief is as unique as a fingerprint, conforms to no timetable or societal expectation,” he wrote, evoking an idea similar to Sacks’ image of unfillable holes. Earlier this week, the paper also published a piece called “My Mother Is Not a Bird,” which rejects euphemisms and the idea of the afterlife. “So much of the conversation about death is euphemism. People use words like ‘passing.’ And in the fog of loss they leap for answers…” Julienne Grey wrote, concluding simply that her mother lives on in the minds of those who loved her.

Many of these pieces are published on blogs, a venue that was barely available before the 21st century, and there are entire sites that have sprung up to meet our need to talk about death and grief. Modern Loss (a website to which I’ve contributed) is specifically targeted to 20- through 40-somethings, and includes pieces about social media and mourning, how-to guides for people unexpectedly sorting through the affairs of a dead relative, as well as dozens and dozens of first-person accounts from younger people who have experienced loss in all kinds of complicated permutations.

The culture of online personal essays sometimes falls flat because much of what gets published, hastily, lacks any implications for the rest of us. We click away thinking, “So what?” One encounters endless, highly detailed writing about strange experiences, with no larger payoff. But writing about death, whether as eloquently as Sacks has done or as meanderingly as some of his commenters will, always has a payoff. The payoff is that we’re reading and thinking about it. The payoff is that we acknowledge a lack of uniformity in this universal experience, and perhaps gain some empathy ourselves.