Regarding the Pain of Others, on Social Media

After losing my mother and father to cancer last year, I went to social media to find some solace in my grief. Pandemic restrictions were still in place in New York City; I couldn’t see my friends much in person; And it felt like people just wanted to leave the room whenever I started talking about death and dying. Online, I found my one reliable source of comfort after this loss: Instagram accounts where other people were hosting intimate sites of mourning, using photographs and video to document their own experiences processing the loss of a loved one. While some platforms are personal, others have death doulas and end-of-life caregivers speaking to broader audiences about death and grief. With between 40,000 and 96,000 followers or more, the larger platforms are run by women who center their work on helping others process or feel less alone in their grief.

Surprisingly, grief accounts gained popularity here on a platform that caters primarily to curated “authenticity,” happiness, and showing one’s best self online. While influencers market their brands using photographs that capture beauty ideals and a sense of mobility (things always getting better), grief accounts have started popping up, offering a different message.

Curator and writer Marvin Heiferman, who documented his grief on Instagram after his husband Maurice Berger died suddenly of Covid two years ago, expressed in an interview with LitHub:

The pandemic was upending lives in multiple ways. Anxiety, fear, and grief were widespread. And on a social media platform known for its relative branding of happiness, I became a grief guy, posting images of my 24/7 sadness, confusion, and the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other mode I was left alone to operate in.

Throughout 2021, I pressed “like” on posts by people who shared videos to normalize conversations about end-of-life care. I engaged and commented on posts by caregivers and death doulas of color, such as Oceana Sawyer and Alua Arthur, who asked, “What does a good death look like for people in our community who have to live with death constant anxiety?” I scrolled through accounts hosted by social workers offering resources and grief coaches who reminded me that keeping my mom’s worn shoes or listening to my dad’s voicemails is a normal part of the grief process.

I could relate to that one-foot-in-front-of-the-other mode described by Heiferman, as I had now become the digital grief-lurker. By witnessing how others expressed their grief online, I was able to put my own into some language. I was haunted, for example, by death doula Naomi Edmondson’s post, who shared a personal photograph with her online community expressing the sadness of another year without her mother around.

When death doula and community activist Alua Arthur was asking us to stop scrolling and give her one minute of our lives to stop and think about death, I gave her that minute.

These accounts, all with beautiful images and aesthetic elements, were now competing for my attention in a platform where algorithms determine one’s curated content, but they demanded something different from me. It wasn’t a matter of pressing “like” on an influencer’s post recommending a particular underwear brand or commenting on my friend’s wedding images in Mexico. Viewing other people’s grief posts required that I empathize with and recognize the pain of others. But, at some point, I started to feel uneasy, even anxious about scrolling through beautiful, catchy images that portrayed the pain of others, feeling like I wasn’t giving them the appropriate moral response.

Susan Sontag, who focused on images of war and violence, saw the problem regarding responding with enthusiasm to images of suffering or the pain of others. In her book On Photography (1977), she takes an anti-aesthetic stance and argues that a photograph of a suffering person only aestheticizes the suffering for the viewer’s pleasure. But the latter Sontag changed her mind before her death and insisted in her last book, Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), that such a photograph can have a sustainable moral-political effect precisely because of its aesthetics. So, now beauty is essential again, and it doesn’t just serve a viewer’s pleasure.

I think both arguments made by Sontag are correct and can be applied to these current, digital times. Focusing on an image’s aesthetic and beauty strategies can indeed contribute to distancing us from the experience of pain that the creator is trying to portray. It might also affect the way we respond to these images. Yet, at the same time — and here is where Sontag’s later argument comes in — “Narratives can make us understand. Photographs do something else: They haunt us,” she writes.

Due to beauty and their aesthetic elements, images can make us stop to think, engage, and empathize. And in my opinion, this is good. Beauty can create a distance and prevent us from recognizing or empathizing with the pain that the image is trying to portray. But it can also capture our attention, haunt us, and even demand a further response from us. Sontag focused on this “haunting effect” in her last book before she died of lung cancer. She never lived to experience Instagram or image-centered social media platforms. Still, I believe her argument also applies to personal and community grief accounts and other digital mourning sites in the present.

Sure, the aesthetic elements in a post might distance us from the reality of grief, but they might also do the opposite and invite us to take a closer look. Regarding grief accounts, regarding the pain of others, even if one image made us stop scrolling for a minute to think about our mortality, about what a “good death” looks like, then that’s good. And if the image can motivate us further into advocating at the level of policy and community to allow everyone to reach that “good death,” then maybe the image did its job. And at the end of the day, it’s up to us, viewers or scrollers, to decide how to respond.

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