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How (Not to) Mourn Shootings on Social Media

how (not to) mourn shootings on social mediaWhat are we supposed to say when a far away tragedy occurs?  Does it matter if it was a natural disaster or an act of terror?  If the victims were random versus extra vulnerable (like children) or minorities, like the most recent Pulse shooting?

I don’t know what your social media feeds look like but responding to a tragic event in a sensitive way can be really difficult.  When someone “stands with France,” others jump on them for ignoring Syria.  When some people expressed outrage over police shootings of unarmed African Americans, they were called out for drawing attention to their own feelings. Certainly there are some really insensitive ways to react to a tragedy*. So, assuming they don’t want to offend anyone, does that mean that people who aren’t a member of the oppressed group that was targeted should not participate in mourning on social media? But then silence is sometimes perceived as being dismissive toward the victims’ community.

It is impossible to have this conversation without discussing the difference between grief and mourning.  Grief is the private reaction to any kind of loss, including change, death and the sense of safety that acts of terror take from us.  Mourning is a culturally informed, public display of grief.  There are usually very specific rules to follow and usually everyone knows what they are.

The rules of social media mourning for large events are not very clear. Perhaps social media is too new.  Perhaps the tragedies are coming faster and are covered in more depth than before.  World War I was the first war to be covered in “real time” and since then news of death and tragedy have arrived more quickly and more vividly every decade.  There are both new phenomenon (school shootings) and old phenomenon newly publicized (police shootings of unarmed black men).  The standards of mourning just haven’t kept up.

This would be the place where I list 5 rules for mourning massively publicized events which you were not directly involved on social media. But I am not here to propose new rules.  I wouldn’t know where to start.

Instead, as a trauma therapist and a person impacted by these events, I know how to empathize with wanting to participate in public mourning while not appearing uncaring or self-absorbed or opportunistic or any number of interpretations that words that are not just right can be read by hurting people.  I can validate that public mourning and private grief are two different things and that feeling adrift on the former does not invalidate the latter.  And while in theory a good ally knows how to support people who are oppressed, in practice someone will always be unhappy with some aspect of advocacy, so do the best you can while seeking guidance from the experts: the members of the community you wish to support.

*Politicians are outside the scope of this discussion.  I know, I know, so many examples.  Which is why they would be their own article. This one is only about non-public social media responses.  Therefore, comments about politicians will be deleted.


How (Not to) Mourn Shootings on Social Media

Sara Staggs, LICSW, MPH

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APA Reference
Staggs, S. (2016). How (Not to) Mourn Shootings on Social Media. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 25, 2020, from


Last updated: 20 Jun 2016
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