Interview: Morning for Loved Ones in a Digital Age: An interview with Kristie West
by Claude Moelan
The process of mourning and grieving over the death of a loved one is never an easy journey. With our lives documented constantly in this digital age, it is only natural that when we die, we will be leaving digital footprints for those we left behind. The question remains - how does the digital culture affect the way people grieve and mourn?
Having to deal with the loss of six close family members, including her father, in such a short amount of time, Kristie West revered her personal journey and experience as a source of aspiration in helping others who are going through bereavement of loved ones.
Kristie shared her thoughts on a growing phenomena of digital mourning and online grief and how it has changed the way people deal with death in a connected world.
- Claude Moelan: Kristie, tell us a little bit about yourself and how you became a Grief Specialist.
- Kristie West: Well it is certainly not something I aspired to from the age of 5 or anything like that! I had grown up around a fair amount of death with a family that had a lot of close great aunts and uncles. As I got older so did they, with the result that growing up I went to a lot of funerals. But nothing could prepare me for what happened a few years ago when I lost 6 family members in 4 months, including my dad who died very suddenly. Already working in mental health and with a background of seeing psychologists (who I swore by), I naturally turned to psychology for answers. I also tried various other coaching, physical, spiritual, etc forms of therapy. I looked everywhere for help. But nothing truly helped. A lot of it was comforting...but none of it actually changed how I felt. Two things never sat right with me - 1) that my dad's legacy should be a family in pain and 2) that death, something so natural, something we will all go through, should have the power to completely undo us even though it is a guaranteed part of our experience.
After arriving in London I began to study different types of personal development, spirituality, coaching, etc until I had reached a point few even believe is possible. I wasn't just totally pain-free around these deaths... they had become beautiful, meaningful and important events in my life, the lives of my family, and the lives and legacies of those who had died. I realised that I honoured them more this way that through staying in pain and letting their legacy be a family destroyed, waiting for time to pass and waiting for the pain to fade as the memories did. I found in myself a deep love of this work around death and a huge inspiration to help others who also didn't want to settle for comfort and support in their pain, but who wanted true change - for themselves and for those that they love. So I immediately gave up all of my other coaching (I was a more general coach at the time) to focus on this and I am now lucky enough to do this amazing work all of the time.
- Claude: Do you think the digital culture has changed the way people grieve and mourn over the loss of loved ones? Why?
- Kristie: I’m not sure if I would say that it has necessarily changed the experience of grieving ultimately… but it has definitely changed the way people express and share their grief. I would like to think that the way people can be more open about their experiences (through the likes of Facebook, Twitter, etc) puts the topics of death and grief in others more often and adds to death awareness, which is really important. Also digitally people have access to so many more professionals in this area as well as other people’s experiences through websites and blogs. This can give them access to new and different information, which can be really valuable.
- Claude: How do you think the digital culture changed the way people grieve towards others they don’t have a close connection to such as celebrities, victims of killings or natural disasters?
- Kristie has definitely had an impact here. Think back to 9/11 or the death of Princess Diana – back then we could listen to the radio, watch TV, or read newspapers to follow details, and see people gathered to grieve collectively. These days, an event like a celebrity death or natural disaster can sweep the world through Twitter almost as soon as it has happened. Our information is not limited to what the newspapers offer us and we are not limited to sharing our experiences with whatever number of people we interact with in a day. Through the mediums of social media, collective grief can happen on a much larger and much more open scale. People can share their thoughts and feelings with millions of people around the world and interact with them. Facebook groups can be formed showing solidarity and support. These deaths and disasters can bring massive community connection. A downside of course is also that pages and groups can spring up that can be seen as abusive or offensive about an event or death. But that is all part of freedom of speech, depending on the content of course.
- Claude: In your opinion, why do you think people choose to grieve online?
- Kristie: For two main reasons, the first being, quite simply, that those of us who use social media are very used to sharing our lives now. We share daily with people we know and people we don’t in a way that we would probably never have considered doing 10 years ago. We share experiences, emotions, trial, and tribulations – some of it incredibly personal. Social media has made sharing and openness the norm (some would argue too much so). Being used to sharing small things means when something big happens we are quite likely to share that in some way, shape, or form too. The other reason is that it can be difficult sometimes to get the support we would like from people around us. Death is a tough topic, for most it isn’t easy to be around, and many people will often be unable to be there for us in the way we might expect. Social media and sharing sites can provide a platform to reach out and share what is going on for you… and have potentially hundreds of people have the opportunity to connect with and support you in a way you may not be experiencing in ‘real’ life. It opens you up for more connection and support at a very tough time. Also social media offers an easy way to inform everyone of what is going on with you… rather than awkward phone calls to just a select few friends, family members, and contacts that you can bear to contact. We live in a time where ‘Google’ is a verb and is often the first place we turn and the first thing we do for information. Going to the Internet is a great way to search for exactly what you want to know and find other people with something to share on the topic that you might find useful or even people in the same boat as them right now
- Claude: What do people do to cope with death offline vs online?
- Kristie: I think away from social media is still where all the meaning-making around death happens individually. While online is where they can express and share offline is where the experience of loss (whatever that looks like for them) really happens and changes according to what information they have. While all the info can be found online, the actual experience of losing someone, the processing of it, and the work to be done around it – if any is done - typically goes on offline. There is very valuable information to be found online, but once you have read or listened to it, what you do with it (if anything) probably goes on offline.
- Claude: How do you think the creation of public memorial pages on Facebook can effect our privacy?
- Kristie: When it comes to platforms such as Facebook we really need to be flexible on our definition of privacy if we wish to use it. I share a lot on my page (and on my blog even) - some of it very personal indeed. But I do so with the full awareness that it can be read by a great many. In some cases it can be read by anyone. Common sense should be used and people should not be posting addresses, phone numbers or other personal information of that nature, unless they are fine with the world having access to that. But as for the feelings they express - it is really up to the individual how much they share so there is no need for them to feel exposed or regretful. I would also encourage people with these concerns to question why they don't want others to know how they are feeling if that is their concern. We live in a society often happy to shout our joy from the rooftops but more inclined to try to hide our sadness and sorrows (which come in equal measures to our joys). There is bravery and strength in sharing our true feelings (whatever they may be - and they really can be anywhere on the spectrum) and our vulnerabilities and it often brings others closer to us rather than pushing them away, especially around death.
- Claude: Would you recommend others to keep some sort of a memorial online for their loved one?
- Kristie: This is very individual… so I can’t say if it would be right for everyone…..but I would like the idea of my family and friends doing that for me when I die. This can be a lovely way for people to connect, to share memories and stories that in the past may only have been shared at funerals. It can also be a way to support a family that has lost someone.
- Claude: What is the safest and most peaceful way people can pay respect to their loved ones in a digital space?
- Kristie: There are sites that offer online spaces to share and pay respects – some of these are wide-open forums or things like open Facebook memorial pages, but there are also those I have heard of that are invite only (Facebook or other websites) which can be a secure way for a family to ensure who can post and who can’t. Of course even with open sites you can moderate and delete anything inappropriate or offensive.
Kristie West is a Grief Specialist based in London who focuses in helping others who are dealing with loss of parents or family members. With a background in coaching and mental health, her 9-step process - Gratitude, Real Connection, Inspiration, Empowerment, and Freedom (G.R.I.E.F) is based on her inspirational journey and is designed to change the way one understands and experiences death into a more positive outlook. She has written an e-book, “The Seven Biggest Myths about Grief”, that you can download for free on her website when you sign up.