My dog died, but I'm not going to Facebook about it so 23 people can 'like' it

My dog died, but I'm not going to Facebook about it so 23 people can 'like' it

CultureDecember 26, 2016

My dog died about two years ago. He was a pug, a big fat one; a happy little weirdo I loved more than life itself.

When he died at the ripe old age of 15, I was devastated. Obviously.

Yet, I did not take to Facebook with a moving obituary about how I'd lost the creature I loved most. I did not inform the several hundred people I barely know of my grief. I did not seek validation in the empty form of a "like." I did not want people to "like" that my dog died and I was torn apart.

I always wondered what was behind a person's drive to do that. Why take to Facebook for fleeting little bumps of validation when you can spend that time in person with people who care about you, having meaningful interactions that help you recover and strengthen your bond with others?

To me, Facebook-style empathy — you know, the kind where people you haven't spoken to in eight years only speak to you because you suffered a loss — is not fulfilling. It's not helpful for me to know that the people who would ostensibly comment or like my dead dog post would be interacting me in the least intimate way possible. The reaction of distant contacts on social media feels disconnected and insincere.

Sharing your grief with your friends and family is an essential part of self-healing, and the kind of emotional vulnerability it takes to do that is brave and admirable. However, I'd much prefer the in-person species of social support. I'd like to know that the people I choose to go to in times of hardship are actual, real people who are there for me, who will actually talk to me about how I feel as opposed to commenting "I'm sorry :(."

That's not to say I'm any better or worse than someone who chooses the path of social media during bereavement. I'm not. But I'm still intensely fascinated by people who are.

Many, many researchers have conducted studies that aim to decipher what exactly goes on in our brains when we’re participating in social media—specifically, Facebook.

A recent study uncovered a strong connection between Facebook and the brain’s reward center, the nucleus accumbens. This area is responsible for creating rewarding feelings about the the things that keep us alive like food, sex, money and social acceptance.

The latter, we sometimes get from Facebook. When we get reassurance on Facebook, the feeling lights up this part of our brain. The greater the intensity of our Facebook use, the greater the reward.

So, maybe it's that we're a little addicted to the social reward Facebook gives us. And nowhere do we get more Facebook attention that when we post about a colossal life event; a marriage, a birth, or a death.

Another fascinating study recorded people's physiological reactions like pupil dilation as they looked at their Facebook feeds. It found that to lurking on Facebook can evoke what they call a "flow state," or the feeling you get when you’re totally and happily engrossed in a project or new skill. That feeling could be beneficial in times of grief. It distracts you from your pain and balances it out with positive emotions.

Researchers have even tried to asses why people "like" their friend's depressing statuses, and they found that it's a way to express empathy where words fail.

According to Facebook:

“Like” is a way to give positive feedback or to connect with things you care about on Facebook. You can like content that your friends post to give them feedback or like a Page that you want to connect with on Facebook.

When the Pew Research Center surveyed Americans about their social media lives, they discovered that 44 percent of Facebook users “like” content posted by their friends at least once a day, with 29 percent doing so several times per day. With those numbers, it's not surprising that people would engage with posts about death, despite the fact that there's nothing to like about them.

Liking things is also a quick and easy nod to someone, a way to say "amen to that," no matter what it's about. On the surface, it shows solidarity and support.

A study reported in Psychology Today demonstrated that spending time on social media predicted a greater ability to be virtually empathetic, and that virtual empathy in turn was a good indicator of being abe to express real-world empathy. That empathy can have real-world implications; it can make you feel supported, like you matter, and like you're not alone.

An even easier way to figure out what the underlying purpose of the "like" is is to stop using it. That’s what Elan Morgan did in a two-week experiment she chronicled on Medium. Here’s what she discovered:

The Like is the wordless nod of support in a loud room. It’s the easiest of yesses, I-agrees, and me-toos. I actually felt pangs of guilt over not liking some updates, as though the absence of my particular Like would translate as a disapproval or a withholding of affection. I felt as though my ability to communicate had been somehow hobbled. The Like function has saved me so much comment-typing over the years that I likely could have written a very quippy, War-and-Peace-length novel by now.

And yadda, yadda, yadda. 

Given this research, the whole dead dog post makes more sense to me now.  I can see more clearly why, at the end of their pets' lives, people feel compelled to reach into the vapid void that is Facebook for reassurance. After all, owning a pet teaches you monumental lessons about unconditional love and companionship, and sometimes at the brink of their existence, you need someone, anyone to share that with.

However, I have to say, it's still not for me. Although I can absolutely respect the process and result of grief-sharing, I can't say that I'm any more likely to do it.

The bottom line is that the loss of a pet — or a friend, lover or family member for that matter — is a completely individual experience. No one is to say what's wrong or right for someone else when it comes to processing grief. Whether you chose to do it publicly or privately is your own decision, but one thing's for sure: if I know you and you lose someone important to you, I will call you or come to see you in person. I will be there for you IRL, as the kids say, because no amount of Facebooking or social media pandering can ever replace the genuineness and directness of real human contact.