Emily Carson

In challenging times, where do you go for comfort and support? An increasing number of people are turning to various forms of social media to both give and receive encouragement during the ups and downs of life. A death in the family, an illness, a fractured relationship. These are all experiences that leave us yearning for a chance to connect with others for support. There are certainly many sources for the encouragement we seek. Some turn to God’s word, time with friends, creative outlets, nature, music, prayer, worship, or exercise. Various forms of social media can also provide care and a space for personal expression during the challenging seasons of life.

A social media ministry

As a pastor, I was unprepared for the role social media plays during difficult times in the lives of church members. It took only a short time to realize that many people are now opting to connect about major life events via Facebook, text messages, emails, Twitter, and Carepages. Holy conversations are no longer relegated to quiet corners of the church’s fellowship hall, the pastor’s office, or around a friend’s kitchen table. Folks of every age are choosing to communicate about significant emotions and events through their cell phones, tablets, and computers.

At first, I was cautious about this cultural shift. It seemed concerning that such personal life matters were now being discussed in very public ways without face-to-face contact.

Time, experience, literature, and many personal conversations have revealed new insights. I now believe that social media can serve as a very meaningful outlet for the range of emotions that accompany life’s deepest challenges. Social media provides tools that allow an individual to reach out. Many online tools also provide ways for people to extend support to someone facing hard times.

Facebook and text messages are definitely not the only ways people can connect about life’s weighty matters. There should always be a special place for direct, personal contact. That being said, these options aren’t mutually exclusive. We can simultaneously honor the value of posting to someone’s Facebook wall and the value of conversing together face-to-face and heart-to-heart. The more we can encourage one another to use a range of support tools in healthy ways, the better.

In preparation for this month’s article, I contacted several people who have recently gone through significant life experiences. They shared reflections about the roles social media has played in their emotional journeys. Their responses shed keen insights that are well-worth pondering.

Valuable connections

When Dan’s mother died, social media provided a public way for him to share his grief. “Facebook and Twitter gave me the opportunity to engage publicly and gave those who wanted to the opportunity to engage with me.” In addition to using social media as a way to reflect upon his experiences of grief and loss, Dan also used social media to honor his mother’s legacy. For the past several years, he has used social media connections to collect funds in honor of his mother that buy resources for families in need.

Jamie experienced a stroke last fall while in her early 30s. She has continued to utilize Facebook throughout her recovery as a virtual space to express her “joys, fears, successes, and failures.” It has also been a tool that allowed her to receive an ongoing supply of uplifting, positive words from friends and family.

When Jen’s grandmother died this winter, she witnessed how the use of social media brought great comfort to her parents. “I could tell that it was meaningful for them to have so many people reach out and share their condolences in such an immediate way.”

Joy experienced the death of her daughter last fall. Social media has played a key role in her journey, too. Facebook continues to play a critical role in her experience of grief. “Support is received and appreciated but it’s nice because you can still get the space and quiet you need to process and heal.”

Not a perfect tool

There are limitations and valid concerns with the use of social media in grief. Dan reminds us that virtual connections shouldn’t be the only form of communication that people use. Joy added that in addition to social media, journaling has also been very helpful to her.

Jen lifted up the potential of social media to become exploitative and shared her worries that privacy is not always protected. Jamie also shared concerns about the public nature of such personal material, but said ultimately she chooses to “post it all honestly” nevertheless.

Joy expressed that one danger she experiences with social media is that in some ways connections that are solely screen-based can tend to isolate the person experiencing grief even further.

There is no perfect rule book that gives a guide to the 100 percent effective use of social media as an emotional tool. Yet with the guidance of prayer and good judgment, we are offered the opportunity to utilize social media in meaningful ways.

It is increasingly clear that online communication platforms have great potential. They can strengthen human connections, provide support to those in need, and encourage emotional expression. May we use the tools we have been given in thoughtful, life-giving ways.

Discussion questions:

1. What forms of social media are you comfortable using in the midst of personal challenges?

2. Do you feel comfortable reaching out to others experiencing significant transitions via social media outlets?

3. Are there any concerns you have about a cultural shift toward greater use of social media in times of loss, transition, and sickness? What guidance do you imagine Jesus would give?

Closing prayer:

Creator of Comfort, throughout history you have entered into our lives in a multitude of ways. Guide us as we seek to shape a world that uses the technology around us in thoughtful ways. In situations where social media will bring comfort, hope, and compassion, please lead us to use it wisely. Amen.

Pastor Emily Carson is the director of communications for the Southeastern Minnesota Synod. She also writes a weekly column for the Rochester Post-Bulletin. Emily loves laughter, photography, blogging, and the library.