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How People Grieve Online When National Tragedy Strikes


The Boston Marathon explosions caused death and destruction. Sandy Hook obliterated our hearts. We’ve all been under unusual strain lately for being citizens of a country that we feel is pretty much orderly and safe.

Since 2004, I’ve been watching online reactions to national tragedies. Many of the reactions can be loosely correlated with the famous “5 Stages of Grief” by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Online reactions usually reflect one or combine two or more of these stages.



In light of the Boston Marathon tragedy, I’ll share with you the few trends  in behavior I see. Here are a few general profiles of reactions to grief or tragedy that I observe on Twitter and other social media sites:

  • Newsers (Denial): Retweeting the most recent news reports and keeping up with hashtag mentions and searches is the most immediate and comforting reaction for these users. I tend to fall into this group for a short amount of time. Knowledge about a disturbing thing helps people feel more in control of events that are beyond their purview.
  • Extreme Newsers (Denial + Bargaining): They keep on the subject for long periods of time, sometimes spanning days into weeks. They often think of themselves as what I call “curation journalists.” Curation Journalists don’t report or create their own news; they curate the best of the Web in real time. This may seem like “fake” journalism, but it isn’t. When tragedy strikes, it is very helpful to have a human sort through the mess of gossip vs. real reporting, quality vs. (perhaps libelous) quantity. Find yourself a friend who is great at this news-curation skill and follow them. It will save you a lot of time and energy, plus it will give you a sense of having a team of informants. Having enough information, as I said, is a human need for relief from stress.
  • Bots (Denial): These are the content creators that don’t turn off their automatic or prescheduled updates in light of tragedy. I’ve seen close friends that are big in the social media world fall under scrutiny because they were out-of-pocket or offline when tragedy struck, and an insensitive update (this one a joke about guns after Sandy Hook) can throw a career into a tailspin. It also can make you look like an insensitive ass.
  • Carry-on-ers (Denial or Acceptance): People who keep tweeting as they normally would without any or very little mention of the tragedy fit into this group. Although this may seem rude and insensitive to some, it’s OK if individuals would prefer to “talk their way through” a tragic course of events. Brands, however, should take a pause from selling. It’s just in bad taste. Here’s what McDonalds tweeted immediately and stayed silent at least 14 hours after the Boston Marathon explosions:
mcdonald's tweet that says they are pausing in light of the bombings in Boston

A good example for brands. Take a moment of silence and stick to it.

  • Side note: Realize that citizens of other nations don’t necessarily fall into this category. Foreigners may not have the same news sources or values. Foreigners may also fit into the next category, Back-Lashers.
  • Back-Lashers (Anger + Bargaining): Some people deal with tragedy by going straight for blame games. Assigning blame, invoking Karma rules, or suggesting extreme preventative measures (like martial law or restrictive legislation) are some of the ways Back-Lashers behave online after disasters and mass-murder crimes. These tweets, in my opinion feel cruel and insensitive. However true they may be (e.g., I saw a Middle Eastern man tweet about drone strikes), this type of self-relief goes beyond the realms of polite netiquette. I understand the angry reaction, though. It’s only human. Unfollow the icily cruel people, but try to stay patient with your connections that fit into this category. They may not realize how they sound.
  • Death Tourists (Denial + Depression): A “Death Tourist” is a person who is fascinated in a positive or negative way by the demise and suffering of other humans. There are actual travel tours offered to cater to this bunch; It’s a real thing. The tour visits the sites of mass or single murders, abuse, or other heinous crimes. Death Tourists on social media are a form of News-ers, but they focus on the graphic nature of the tragedy. They add compassionate touches like, “Oh my god, this is just heartbreaking to watch” but they spread horrifically graphic media via their social accounts. I’m not a big fan of this reaction either. Please see my post about “Eye Bleach” for my reasons why.
  • Mourners (Depression+ Acceptance): Some people are truly skilled at handling their emotions. Instead of gut reactions like anger or an obsession with absorbing all the graphic media available, the Mourners hop straight to the weeping, chest-tightening, and virtual clothes-rending tweets to express their sadness. This approach seems like a healthy reaction, as long as it doesn’t go beyond the limits of decorum, like Extreme Mourners. A compassionate mention and then a few hours or days of silence is the standard for sites like Twitter. (Facebook may have on-going asynchronous discussions under one update).
  • Extreme Mourners (Denial + Acceptance): These types are a bit like Death Tourists. Instead of absorbing media of the tragic event, they share their sadness and re-share others’ mournful comments, ad infinitum. This could be attention-getting behavior, but it can also be a sign of a panic attack brought on by the reminder that our lives can be in danger even at the most innocent of events.
  • Actioners (Acceptance + Bargaining): These are the philanthropic people with a passion to serve. This category can include people who retweet civil service calls (e.g. Donate Blood), or those who begin a charity or relief mission and are looking for volunteers. These compassionate go-getters give the rest of us hope and a feeling of control over our uncontrollable environment.


We all experience tragedy in our own individual ways. We may bounce between the different kinds of online behavior when reacting to various horrific situations. Arguing with a connection online about their reaction is not helpful. Be patient. People need time to work out their anxieties, and cutting off ties over a social media update or two probably isn’t the best way to hold onto friendships.

Back in the old days, when there was no WWW or way to share your grief with millions or even just hundreds of people, therapists would suggest writing out a letter to your deceased loved one or the object of your anger. They’d also suggest keeping a journal of thoughts and emotions. Now, we just aren’t that private. We go to Facebook, Twitter, email, to publicly share our stages of grief. The rule used to be that one would write the letter, then burn it. Or they would write out the journal and then lock it away forever.

Locking our social media trail away forever isn’t yet possible. Even if you delete your updates, they still live on somewhere, in some random server grid. Take care to react politely and appropriately online. If you need to vent more, call a friend. Voices don’t carry; Type does.

How do you usually deal with massive national tragedy?




Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Mari Adkins 16 April 2013, 9:14 am

    I’m a total newser. I have files in my news archives 50pp long or more where I’ve gone around collecting the breaking story, pictures, comments, and follow-ups. I *still* collect news about Columbine and the WM3.