Opinion: Grieving with a hashtag

Tyler+Kieslich+is+a+sports+reporter+for+The+Kent+Stater.+Contact+him+at+tkieslic%40kent.edu.

Tyler Kieslich is a sports reporter for The Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected]

Tyler Kieslich

Since its launch in 2006, Twitter has become part of the everyday human experience for hundreds of millions of users. When something important happens, most people find out about it through Twitter. And when tragedy strikes, many grieve with a hashtag.

When Jason Bitsko, a Kent State junior marketing major and starting center for the football team, was found dead in his Brimfield apartment last Wednesday, an outpour of sorrow and messages of solidarity flooded Twitter. Using the hashtag #RIP54, the Kent State community expressed their shock and sadness at the unexpected loss. 

Bitsko’s former teammate and current Pittsburgh Steeler Dri Archer tweeted, “Sad day for the kent state family [sic]! I’m shocked by this news!! [sic] #RIP54 love you bro,” a message which received hundreds of favorites and retweets.

In a recent article on Slate.com, writer Forrest Wickam said Twitter is the “best source for news in the moments after a public figure’s death” and “one of the best places to mourn as a community.” 

But there are those who regard Twitter grieving with a suspicious eye. In the wake of Robin Williams’ death, Politico said posts about the actor’s death “makes death feel cheap,” and an article in the London Evening Standard claimed that it “reduce[s] human tragedy to a retweet.”

However, Twitter grieving may just be a modern iteration of an ancient custom — the funeral ritual. In his essay, “Why is the Funeral Ritual Important?” Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt, a renowned educator and grief counselor, said that there are six essential “mourning needs” that enable people to move past tragedy: “acknowledge the reality of the death,” “move toward the pain of the loss,” “remember the person who died,” “develop a new self-identity,” “search for meaning” and “receive ongoing support from others.” Twitter can allow all of these things to take place within a community, much in the same way that public funeral rituals have done in the past, albeit on a much larger, global scale.

As with anything else on the Internet, Twitter grieving does not come without a dark side. After members of Robin Williams’ family were sent disturbing and graphic photoshopped images, Twitter has moved to change its policy to allow grieving family members to take these photos down. However, the fact remains that grieving on Twitter is simply a modern way of fulfilling the human need to cope with and rationalize tragedy.