A good friend of mine’s husband died this week in his sleep at the age of 43 of a massive heart attack. For this blog I decided to reflect on how communication around this terrible event differs from what it would have been 10 years ago and how social attitudes have changed.
This week, I was notified by a friend on Facebook that Khiem had died. I quickly went to his wife Brenda’s page and found 30 posts. By the end of the day friends and family had posted over 150 messages of condolences and personal thoughts and photos. It was heartbreaking to read the messages and see the beautiful family pictures. I was struck by how personal many of the messages to Brenda were. Although the sentiments were lovely, I was surprised by the very personal thoughts that people were expressing for everyone to read. Within about 6 hours of Khiem’s death I received another message from a friend letting me know that a fundraising page had been set up on YouCaring.com. I went to the page directly and saw that $7,500 had already been raised. The site allows individuals to donate immediately using their credit cards. It then offers the donor the ability to leave a personal message or donate anonymously. You also have the ability to make public the amount of money you donated. It was wonderfully surprising to see how much money had been raised in such a short period of time. Seeing the messages from other friends certainly inspired and pressured me to donate as well. I was however surprised to see that people were willing to publicize the amount of their donation.
Ten years ago, I would have been notified of a death by telephone. I would have then called some other friends and we would have consoled each other. Except for family and her closest friends, Brenda would not have received condolences until she saw people at Khiem’s wake and those messages would have been relatively private, heard only by the person in the line behind you. It is unlikely that any formal fundraising would have taken place.
So which way is better? In this situation I think it really only matters how my friend would feel. Receiving all of the messages of support must provide some comfort to her and would help to make her feel less alone and isolated. One week after Khiem’s death over $35,000 has been raised. This would give her a sense of relief that at least she doesn’t have to worry about money for the next few months while she gathers herself. The negative I see in this situation is the need for some to publicize their grieving in way that (in my opinion) is motivated by less than selfless acts. I was raised in an era when it wasn’t appropriate to bear your soul in public and it was seen in many ways as a sign of weakness. A stiff upper lip showed class and dignity. (I am only 48 by the way). Publicizing the amount of a donation would have been unheard-of. But times and social norms have changed. People’s ideas of what is appropriate public discourse have changed and will continue to do so. I think as with any change you get the good and the bad. In the past there were those would could express very little sentiment and now there are those who express too much. Hopefully in the future we will find a better balance. I think a little privacy is still a good thing.