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How to Grieve in the Era of Social Media

Sgt. Mark Renninger with his son. (FAMILY PHOTO)

In the olden days, you know, a decade ago, if someone passed away calls were made, perhaps an obituary was placed in the local paper, word slowly spread and then came the sympathy cards and the flowers. But social media has changed some of that. Now the loss of a loved one can be shared with thousands of friends and family members in a single click. It’s also changed the way we grieve.

Kim Renninger’s husband, Sgt. Mark Renninger, was shot and killed, along with three other Lakewood police officers, in 2009. At first Facebook was too overwhelming for her. A memorial page was set up for Mark and she couldn’t look at it for a year or two.

“I had a pretty intense time,” said Kim. “I know mine’s kind of extreme. It took me a while and I’m really grateful that was there when I was ready for it.”

In time, Kim started to appreciate the way she could communicate with people online.

“Grieving is such a personal process and journey that social media allows you to almost be more private about it because you don’t have to pick up the phone and have a conversation with somebody or type out a long email. You just put up something real brief and memorable up on Facebook and you kind of can let it go because you feel like you got the word out and you’re honoring that person.”

She says she’s gotten to hear stories and see pictures that she never would have seen.

“I’m friends with a lot of Mark’s childhood friends and family on Facebook who I normally wouldn’t be friends with. One of his friends, who he grew up with, shared a story of Mark. Which made my day. I love those little stories and I love seeing pictures of him and I would not have that without Facebook.”

While Kim sticks to Facebook, NPR host Scott Simon uses Twitter. When his 84-year-old mother unexpectedly landed in the hospital last summer, he spent his down time tweeting out her quotes and stories to his 1.3 million followers.

“I just found that my mother was so funny and so bright and so interesting and so worth hearing,” said Scott. “Of course, my entire life became severely circumscribed by what was going on in her room in the intensive care unit that I just found it perfectly natural to pass on things that she would say to me.”

Having gone in to get a simple blood test because she wasn’t feeling well, Scott assumed his mother would recover. At first he shared her wise words and humor, but then it became clear that she would never leave the hospital.

On July 28th he tweeted: “I love holding my mother’s hand. Haven’t held it like this since I was 9. Why did I stop? I thought it unmanly? What crap.”

And then:

“Mother cries Help Me at 2;30. Been holding her like a baby since. She’s asleep now. All I can do is hold on to her.”

“I think when she said, ‘Honey, let me tell you, those great deathbed speeches all have to have been written in advance,'” He laughs. “That was just very funny. She was giving a last great performance for her family and I was glad to be able to share it.”

The nation followed Scott’s sweet, sad tweets until his mother passed away two weeks later. He was flooded with 140 character messages from strangers.

“The most touching remarks that I got, they were people that would said, ‘Your mother sounds like a fascinating person.”Your mother sounds very funny.’ ‘Your mother sounds like she was a hoot.’ That was the sort of thing that touched me a lot. I must say, when someone in the middle of Australia tells you that, you have to pause for a second and say, wow, this is an amazing world we’re living in.”

Scott says using social media hasn’t necessarily helped with his grief, but it is a natural way to communicate given the time we live in.

“I think what maybe social media platforms have done is enable people to tell their own family’s story, directly to a lot of people at the same time. I think for those of us who lose someone who is close to us, the instinct is for the world we live in to know more about them, there’s something very basic about that. I think it’s possible that social media let’s us do this in a way that wasn’t possible before. They don’t have to hope that the New York Times will call and say, ‘We want to do something on your loved one.’ They can take to social media and do it themselves.”

More than four years after her husband’s death, Kim is thankful for a Facebook support group made up of hundreds of widows of fallen officers. And she’s careful about what she posts online, because she’s private and because she doesn’t like to be pitied.

“Sometimes it makes me feel better, sometimes it doesn’t,” said Kim. “But most of the time it does. Overall I think it helps. I like it. It makes me help connect with people and I don’t have to leave my house. I don’t have to brush my hair or brush my teeth. Because sometimes that’s hard, you know? But I can open my computer and instantly connect with somebody. It makes my day.”

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