Grief in a digital world

20:05, Jun 06 2014

These are the times when the English language shows failings. When words like tragedy and nightmare start to lack any real meaning and grief will know no depth.

Few of us cannot have been touched or moved in some way by the deaths of 12-year-old friends Abi Hone and Ella Summerfield and Ella's mum, Sally Rumble, in the car crash near Rakaia last Saturday.

As a city, this emerging Christchurch has both real and imagined bonds. Post-quake, it learned how to grieve as one, and as a community, Sumner will wrap around these families as they navigate an unimaginable path.

I don't know any of them personally but I have heard their names and situation discussed in such empathetic terms.

Who can look at the photos or video footage of the Dutch driver and ever conceive of putting yourself in his position?

Perhaps if you have already lost one or more loved ones you might be more circumspect about untimely death and call it simply a matter of fate.


When your time is up, it's up. But then you look at the photos of those girls and read the effusive words about their personalities and think the fates were incredibly cruel.

I wonder what Shane Summerfield will think when he finally reads all the words written about his family while he lay in a coma, watched and worried over by his son.

Specialist teams are working with the girls' former and current schools to help their pupils deal with the trauma.

The crash caused a relatively small number of deaths but its ripples travel far.

There is something called "Dunbar's number" which gives a cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. They say humans can comfortably maintain 150. Looking at the busy space of social media and seeing the memorial pages set up for these girls, it suggests far more. Grieving through social media might seem lazy, but studies say it is not necessarily less real. If discussing death was once taboo, expressing sympathy and condolences via the internet breaks the ice. Death is a subject made for social media. It gives some people time and space to form clear thoughts, for some it provides immediacy. It gives strangers a way to show they care. For others, it is a welcome space for the age-appropriate abbreviations and exclamations common to young girls. They can say things their own way.

I have been heartened by the way strangers have shown support lately. When people realise there is little they can do other than turn up, they do it.

I understand there have been gatherings for the families in Sumner. There was a march and candle-light vigil for Auckland woman Blessie Gotingco last Saturday night. Blessie's death had different elements. She wasn't young, white or middle class. She was taken in circumstances that will become clearer after due process in court but she had three children and a husband to whom she had been married for 30 years. Almost 2000 people marched for Blessie. Her husband said people had put notes in his letterbox offering to bring meals or clean the house.

Jill Meagher was an Irish national who was abducted and killed in Melbourne in 2012. After her body was found, about 30,000 people took to the streets to march in her honour; the vast majority of whom never knew her but knew that being there would show someone they cared. There is such capacity for grief and stress. I hope there is an equal capacity to accept the kindness and support of strangers. Even if it only provides a moment of relief or a memory to treasure.

Abi, Ella, Sally. Lost to their parents, family and friends. Lost to the rest of us, just strangers. Frozen in photographs, in pictures they'd likely approved themselves for the glare of Facebook. Profile pictures to be updated as they grew up. To be seen and "liked" by people they knew instead of published in the event of their deaths.

The Press