Where do you go to speak about grief, to encapsulate what it means to lose a loved one?
These conversations may take place in living rooms and coffee shops, with close friends or family members, or perhaps on a video call. Sometimes, the words aren’t really expressed at all, with no space quite right for what needs to be said.
Today, GriefTok is creating a new setting for conversations about grief, with TikTok proving a space for discussing the universal experience of loss. Grief has become a subgenre on the app, with TikTokkers sharing stories of death and remembering lost loved ones through photographs, video, and narration.
The community is extremely popular on the app, #grief has 1.4 billion views while #grieftok, has over 40 million views at the time of writing. Here, there are videos that share anecdotes from therapy. Others feature relatable reenactments illustrating how grief comes in waves — emphasizing that the aftermath of loss isn’t always a linear path.
Other hashtags, like #griefjourney, have over 338 million views, and delineate the ups and downs when it comes to living through loss over time. Some videos share how people can help those who are grieving, while others speak to processing years later. People often share treasured moments, or depict visuals revisiting their grief, through old momentos, photos, or flower-strewn graves.
Credit: Screenshot / TikTok: @therapylux.
My first thought on stumbling upon this space: perhaps, if I discovered this years ago, such a community would have proved cathartic, if not as a participant then as an observer. Perhaps this content mitigates the loneliness of grief.
A few years ago, I lost both a family member and a friend. The ensuing grief, from both deaths, would ebb and flow. But amongst everything I was feeling, there was a deep sense of isolation, an added layer to navigate. Until I began publicly writing about loss, the visceral presence of grief felt like a secret I had to keep to myself. It was this public release and portrayal of my grief that gave me ownership over the disorientation of losing people I love.
“Grief can be an incredibly heavy emotion to navigate alone,” agrees TikToker and content creator Lauren Bulloch, a member of GriefTok. Bulloch creates videos about grief and healing, speaking about the loss of her father and sharing advice from her therapist.
“Grief can be an incredibly heavy emotion to navigate alone.”
“I personally love to share on TikTok because, when I found myself in a really dark place, a saving grace was hearing the stories of others that had walked a similar path,” she tells Mashable. “We all have to face grief of some kind — it is woven into the fabric of life right along with the joy and all the rest in between.”
Psychologist Zoe Clews, who specializes in PTSD and trauma, says that grief is an individual experience that varies from person to person. As a result, it is difficult for anyone to wholly convey their thoughts and emotions, or entirely understand how another is processing grief. Yet, communication and storytelling are tools that can help, Clews explains.
“By sharing how we feel we can also open the door to others who, while they can’t put themselves entirely in our shoes, have had grief experiences that are so similar they can be reassuring, comforting, and inspiring,” Clews says. “That sense of shared experience often provides the strength we need to stand up, lean our shoulder into the emotional wind and press on.”
Credit: Screenshot: TikTok / @andreaparedesp1
The daily prevalence of loss cannot be quantified, but according to the numbers, in 2019, the U.S. reported over 2.8 million deaths. In the UK, 1 in 29 people aged 5-16 have lost a parent or a sibling, according to family support charity Child Bereavement UK.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also exacerbated grief globally. As of this month, 5 million people have lost their lives to COVID-19, according to the Johns Hopkins University coronavirus tracker. India has seen over 450,000 deaths while Brazil has faced over 607,000 losses. Also, an estimated 1.5 million children worldwide lost a parent or other caregiver in the first 14 months of the pandemic.
These losses in particular came at a time when mourning could not be traditionally conducted in person, due to global lockdowns, travel bans, and social distancing rules. The restrictions in place distorted rituals of mourning and processing, with funerals being replaced by Zoom calls or other goodbyes rooted in technology. This resulted, for many, in complicated grief, and while most restrictions like these have lifted, the effects last.
And while grieving using technology can be a surreal experience, connectedness is often tangible on social sharing platforms. Reddit, for example, has helped people process and express everything they have lost, with threads dedicated to grief support. These spaces can reinforce and cement community at times when human connection is vital for healing.
Madilynn James, a TikTokker who posts mainly about sibling loss, similarly explains that the GriefTok community is important to her because “it truly makes things less lonely.”
“I’ve actually made some awesome friends through the GriefTok community,” James tells Mashable. “I don’t have a lot of friends that understand so it is nice to find support and a group of people who understand.”
This concept of visibility in grief is also explored by Megan Devine, author of It’s OK That You’re Not OK, who writes in her book: “When you become visible in your grief, it’s like a portal opens, a doorway into acceptability and openness. When you start talking about your loss, it’s like there’s suddenly this permission, and we think Oh, thank goodness, we’re talking about grief now.”
Credit: Screenshot / TikTok: @lauren_bulloch
GriefTok has indeed allowed people like James to facilitate connection with those who have similar stories.
“Videos like this one have shown me how much [opening up] about sibling loss can help people in a positive way,” James says. “I received so many DMs of people reaching out to me to share their story and connecting.”
Clews says that TikTokkers in the GriefTok space have created “herd safety,” allowing “tolerance, empathy, and support to flourish” in this particular community. She also says that, by sharing in wide numbers and via multiple people, spaces like TikTok could be contributing to the destigmatization of mental health through such open support and discussion.
Psychotherapist Terence Watts adds that social media platforms like TikTok are designed for creative and individualistic expression, which bolsters the grieving process. “TikTok allows people to choose how they express themselves through music and images or other sound that is meaningful to them,” he says. “Every individual has their own way of expression and TikTok and other social media channels are as valid as talking face-to-face.”
Credit: Screenshot / TikTok: @_madijames
James also says that making and posting these videos via GriefTok is a way of processing in itself.
“I share my grief progress on TikTok to look back on how much progress I’ve made and making videos helps me grieve in general,” she says.
GriefTok, then, serves many purposes. It exists not only to educate and communicate about the intricacies of grief, but also to celebrate how far some of us have come in our journeys of loss. In the overwhelming aftermath of loss, it is spaces like this which allow for some sort of togetherness, connecting with those who have walked the same difficult path.