Dear Etiquetteer: Recently a friend of mine passed away unexpectedly at a young age (under 50). You can imagine people’s shock and distress and sorrow. What are the rules for posting about one’s grief over the passing of a loved one in the era of social media? It seems that letting the family announce the death first on social media would be important. Also, it seems that many people had to outdo each other with stories of how horrible it was to them that this person passed away. Also there were speculations and rumors about the cause of death and all sorts of gossip out in the public. What advice could Etiquetteer provide?
First, let Etiquetteer offer condolences on the death of your friend. It's expected that the death of a friend, regardless of age or circumstances, will bring up many memories along with feelings of sadness - indeed, many emotions. And it's understandable that the bereaved will be drawn closer to others who knew the deceased to grieve together. But how we express ourselves in person doesn't always translate the same way online, especially when grieving.
The ways we communicate in the 21st century haven't necessarily adapted well to Perfect Propriety. For instance, social media now creates a public (or at least highly visible) record of information that used to be shared by whispering behind one's fan or privately in a letter to only one person. (Do you remember letters? While Etiquetteer does enjoy the convenience of email, the intimacy of letters is missed. Etiquetteer misses them even more than he misses fans for those gossiping old biddies . . . um, Great Ladies.)
It is understandable that people want to share their grief, but many don't always understand that respecting the feelings of others, especially the family, is even more important. It's necessarily thoughtful to wait until the family has made a death announcement before sharing the news (and one's reactions to it) oneself online. Imagine learning about the death of your son or daughter from Facebook! Etiquetteer would like to see everyone spared this sort of shock. One complication is that the family can't always be assumed to be using the same social media. Before expressing one's grief publicly in a social media post, it's best to confirm the news with the family or someone closer to the family than oneself.
Freedom of Speech is the most valuable American freedom, and as such, it needs to be used responsibly. Etiquetteer deplores the Grief Sweepstakes you describe - "I'm the most grief-stricken!" "No, I'M the most grief-stricken!" - which is the mark of a Vulgar Exhibitionist. While not wishing to pooh-pooh anyone's grief at the death of a friend or family member, Etiquetteer must gently remind everyone that it's the deceased that is the proper focus of attention, not one's own emotions at the death of the deceased.
Etiquetteer would vastly prefer to see dialogue about the deceased focus on personal acts of kindness and happy memories rather than (most vulgar of all) speculation on the cause of death. Nothing that might damage the reputation of the deceased should be shared so publicly, online or in person. Etiquetteer still hasn't forgotten attending a small funeral several years ago during which one of the mourners shared many Jolly Recollections of illegal activities committed by the deceased.
In short, "Least said, soonest mended" is the best advice. And don't let the immediacy of the Internet keep you from writing a Lovely Note of Condolence by hand and mailing it to the family.
Would you rather Etiquetteer discuss something more pleasant during the holiday season? It's up to you! Send Etiquetteer a query at <queries> at etiquetteer.com.