Another US Teacher Slain: Social Media in Times of Grief

Another US Teacher Slain: Social Media in Times of Grief

I received a text very early this morning from my 17-year old daughter.  It read, “Mom, school is closed today; please call.  This is really messed up.”

Upon calling my daughter, I learned that Danvers High School was closed today due to a homicide investigation.  Details were sketchy at this early hour.  Yet as the morning unfolded, and from a press conference held at 9 AM, I learned that a 24-year old math teacher had allegedly been murdered by a 14 year-old DHS student.  My daughter knew both the victim and the assailant — Miss Ritzer, her former math teacher; and the boy, a freshman at her school.

I wanted to understand more so researched today’s tragedy via Google.  All the reports confirmed what my daughter had shared with me.  All of the details were the same: that Danvers public schools are closed today; that Miss Ritzer is the 2nd teacher allegedly killed by a student in the U.S. since Monday; that a 14 year-old student had been accused of killing Miss Ritzer; some of the details of the case; that Miss Ritzer was very respected and loved; and the last Tweet sent from Miss Ritzer’s Twitter account 2 days ago:  “Math teacher often too excited about the topics I’m teaching.”

The last message sent from Miss Ritzer’s Twitter account…

The fact that this teacher had a Twitter account was important enough to make it into these breaking news stories.  Another validation that we are living in a Digital World…

A terrible tragedy – and this time — too close to home.  I am physically away from my daughter for 3 months now helping to care for my father who just had heart surgery.  I am away from my daughter during her time of need. My heart is breaking for everyone who was affected by today’s events.  I feel a need to be close to my daughter and the town where I spent 15 years of my life.

I went on Google to research the breaking story.  I went on to Facebook to see how my daughters and their friends were responding to the tragedy.  My daughter texted me early this morning to ask that I call her.  And then I read about Miss Ritzer’s Twitter account.  All of this got me to thinking about the use of social media in times of grief.

In a quick Google search earlier today, I learned that in a survey of 5,072 people, only 18% of them turn to social media for comfort during times of grief.  The other 82% feel that social media is “too public” during times of grief.  I don’t know the demographics of the 5,000 + who were surveyed.  Yet what I am experiencing today is that the teens and 20-somethings are more than willing to share their feelings via Facebook, Twitter and the like; it helps them to grieve.

As an advocate for balancing on-line time with real life activities, the incident today has raised a lot of curiosity. 

In a world where anyone can share anything, does social media help or hinder how we grieve?

From my own experience of today, it helped.  My daughter texted me given the early morning hour, requesting that I call her.  Her text was the medium she used which facilitated a deeper connection via telephone.

I used Google as a way to learn more information about today’s tragedy.  Reading words in a breaking news story and seeing pictures, in particular, helped me to make a different kind of connection.

Later I went on to Facebook to see what had been written there; then offering words of sympathy and support to my children and their friends and parents.

I even Tweeted about today’s events – this senseless act – as a way to release just a small amount of what has built up inside of me these past 6 hours.

I recently read something in Fast Company (July 29, 2013) entitled “Death in the Time of Twitter, or, How We Grieve Now”.  The blog talked about Scott Simon, a host at NPR who had been live-tweeting his mother’s death from her bedside.  This raised some controversy and a question about sharing via social media our thoughts on dying or whether it should remain a private affair.  Is it appropriate to bring strangers into our own deeply personal experiences with death, using public mediums?  Is social media becoming another stage of the grieving process?

These very questions have been palpable for me this morning.

At one level, it was important for me to have access to my daughter and her older sister through any medium.  For the deeper more intimate conversations, however, we turned to connecting in voice.

At the moment of realization of what occurred this morning, my daughter wanted to hear her mother’s voice and I in turn wanted to hear hers.  We couldn’t physically be together so this was the next best thing.  My older daughter who is away at college and also went to DHS has been texting me throughout the day about the incident, sharing some of her thoughts.  At the same time, she too has requested a time to talk – a time to connect at a deeper level.

I turn to Lisa Nielsen’s article on April 2, 2013, where she wrote about using social media during times of grief.  In this article, she mentions that more than 1 million people liked a Facebook showing support for what happened after the Sandyhook Elementary School shooting last year.  In this case (as in many others) people have turned to social media to “memorialize, make sense, and grieve”.

It is Nielsen’s view that when an incident such as this happens, “school staff and administration have an incredible opportunity to not only get a sense of what the school community is feeling, but also show support.”  This has led Nielsen to what she calls the “6 C’s”:

  1. Consider what the school community is thinking and feeling.
  2. Communicate so that the school staff is not perceived as being out of touch.
  3. Connect with those who are setting the tone for the community and show support.
  4. Social media can be an important platform to “communicate, connect, make sense and Console one another in difficult times”.
  5. Commemorate the passing of loved ones.
  6. Have the Courage it takes to reach out to your community via social media.  “Social media is the new town square.”

Social media has indeed become a tool of support that can help families, loved ones, and in this case, the school community as a whole during these times of tragedy.  At the same time, it is my view that balance is important.

I would love for you to share your views.  Does social media help you to grieve or should these moments in your life remain more private?