Are 140 Characters Enough? Social Media as Grief Counsellor

Robin Williams

Robin Williams (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Robin Williams died yesterday. Without question it was an unexpected tragedy.

Each time a celebrity dies unexpectedly I am surprised. What surprised me again this time was the number of Facebook tributes with people sharing their personal memories of watching his films, or offering condolences to his wife and family, or just words directly to Mr. Williams. My twitter account is also overrun with tweets about Mr. Williams. What did people do in the days before they had to limit their grief to 140 characters? Why are we so drawn to making statements about tragedies (about celebrities and non-celebrities) on social media?

The news articles no longer run quotes from celebrities, they cite tweets.

Steve Martin’s tweet was exceptionally eloquent:

I could not be more stunned by the loss of Robin Williams, mensch, great talent, acting partner, genuine soul.

It was both heartbreaking and moving. It was also 140 characters or less. 140 characters to sum up an Academy award winning actor’s life. Perhaps this is not wrong. It just is.

Ben Stiller found it difficult to limit himself to 140 characters:

A tweet cannot begin to describe the hugeness of Robin Williams heart and soul and talent. This is so sad.

And then he went on:

OK, I’ll try. I met him when I was 13 and a huge fan and he was so kind and I watched him be kind to every fan i ever saw him with…

And on . . . Ben Stiller tweeted five more times about Robin Williams. Why?

Why grieve so publicly? Through social media, Mr. Stiller and Mr. Martin are simultaneously sending out condolences to Mr. Williams’ friends and family, making a public statement for the media to print, and also reaching out to their fans. I wonder though: are Mr. Williams’ family and friends scrolling through their feeds searching for the hashtag #RobinWilliams? Are they missing some wonderful words about their husband, father, and friend due to social media? In Ben Stiller’s case, he could arguably send a handwritten card to Mr. Williams’ family with the same sentiments that he tweeted, especially if he couldn’t confine himself to 140 characters. And maybe he did. I’d like to think he did.

But what about the rest of us? What excuse do we have for drowning our sorrows on Facebook and Twitter, each one trying to be more eloquent or sentimental than the last? I am quite certain that Mr. Williams’ family is not reading the Facebook page or Twitter account of Anyone, Anywhere. So why do it? I’m not sure. The only reason I can come up with is that in a strange way, social media functions as a kind of grief counsellor for those people who aren’t personally connected to the star but who want to make their sorrow known. In sharing these memories, a person feels a connection–if not with the person directly, with others who share the same loss. It’s kind of like group therapy. And maybe that’s not a bad thing.

I just feel that Robin Williams deserves more than 140 characters or a Share button. But maybe more words are not necessary.

Peace be with you Mr. Williams. The world mourns your loss.

If you would like to contact me about this post or about anything else you’ve read please email me at: or tweet me @JudyAmy74


140 thoughts on “Are 140 Characters Enough? Social Media as Grief Counsellor

  1. Reblogged this on blogatoms and commented:
    Of tweets and ‘freshly pressed’ emotions…… raises a bigger question why do we share (the grief we feel) through social media – Is it because we want to share common ground and support our deeper need to ‘belong’?

    Whether its a precis or essay is a moot adjunct to the ‘reason why’ of course…


  2. I wrote a blog about Mr. Williams last week. My thoughts were, why are so many people so eager to judge a mans life, yet never knew him or his struggles personally.
    Thanks for sharing.


  3. Perhaps with the social network we feel too closely of all the people who sorrow for his loss.It’s enought if I say that Robin was a great person and a great talent.I didn’t know him but I saw him in some of his film and it was enought for me to think that he was a great artist,a great comedian…


  4. It seems that in this age of social media, micro-blogging has replaced the publicist in communicating official statements from celebrities. In “olden days” condolences from Steve Martin to Pam Dawber would have likely been released through a press agent. Twitter also has a confessional feel, making it easy for Ben Stiller to pick up his iPhone and tap out his personal feelings as they drop from his heart, without the sterile, cold, corporate feel of press release.


  5. I think it’s just a vessel for how we grieve. We need to voice our thoughts when a death happens. That’s how we cope with it and right now, our major means of communication happens to be social media. We’re not doing it for the Williams family, we’re doing it for ourselves and our emotional stability.


  6. I posted a touching tribute to Robin Williams on my blog to honor what he meant to me. He was a constant figure throughout my life and I am a big fan. My post was my way of saying goodbye and paying respect to his memory using the best vehicle that I know. Thanks for recognizing this important and fascinating trend in society. This conversation is worth having!


    • I am looking forward to reading your post, Drake. I agree–it’s important to have conversations about sorrow, grieving, and how we deal with it in different ways. Best wishes!


  7. Pingback: My Fave Things #36 | Kerry's Blog

  8. Very interesting topic. I do think that somewhere in this need to grieve is the other compulsion that soical media fosters, the fear of missing out on something. I think the public grieving might just also be a selfish crying out of “hey im in on this too!” The need to let everyone know/believe that they’ve not missed something, they’re a part of the communal sentiment, they “feel bad” too, — they are not an outsider in society.


  9. Pingback: Grief, Celebrity and Social Media Revisited | thinkdreamdo

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