Death and Emojis: How Grief Manifests on Social Media
On Paris Hilton mourning her friend with emojis, the uncanny sadness of the Tupac hologram at Coachella, and losing my father.
Illustration by Eleanor Doughty
When we were kids, my brother spent countless hours in the attic, playing computer games where none of us were likely to bother him. He couldn't hear us up there, in thrall before an ancient desktop, surrounded by old phone books. But we could hear him everywhere.
His favorite game had a medieval-fantasy premise and a lot of noisy monsters, off-brand orcs who lumbered through a pixelated hellscape, grunting or sneezing this sound like zug! to each other in passing. It was adorable. My dad, who stored a lot of his dad-stuff in the attic, was delighted by all those monster noises. He began using zug in his speech. He never stopped. It became one of those nothing-words that come to mean everything in childhood: Zug as hello, zug as goodbye. Zug as "shut up," zug as "I love you." It's mostly in the last sense that he had it engraved, an inside joke of sorts, on the side of his tombstone—all caps, with an exclamation point. The joke is that he's greeting us, not so much from beyond the grave as from within it.
I acknowledge that this isn't exactly funny, as far as jokes go—it imparts a less cheerful literalism to hyperbole like "I laughed so hard I cried." As it happens, a little too literal in its interpretation of gallows humor. Loss and comedy share the same expression, and the poles of our emotional range can warp and bend until they look alike. Their likeness can create problems for the person trying to come up with a public face for grief. Ask Paris Hilton, who might have been ashamed, say, if she had any reason to care about the opinion of Internet commenters, who took issue with her use of one of the laugh-so-hard-you-cry emojis in an Instagram post about the death of her close friend, makeup artist Jake Bailey.
I first saw Paris's post on Jezebel, and the commenters there weren't pleased. They had harsh words for Paris about her non-words: "Using emoji when making posts about someone dying is inappropriate and comes across as flippant. Just my humble opinion," wrote one. Said another: "It's a time to sit down and use your words, not cop out with a face."
I don't know Paris Hilton. But I've always suspected her of having a soul. She's one of the few mascots of millennial trash-culture who's receded from public view with a kind of grace. When the country turned away from her and her Simple Life, she kindly let them, and went on to build a business empire overseas. So who can really say how this woman grieves. Maybe it's with the depth of feeling you'd expect from a human being. Maybe it's with emojis.
Paris Hilton began to metastasize in our public consciousness in 2003, the same year that my father was diagnosed with cancer. I was twelve when he went to the hospital for the first time for what he referred to as a "stomach thing," and the word "colon," which I had previously only ever heard in English class, started surfacing in overheard conversations between my parents. I didn't pay much attention. Parents were old. Their bodies were old. It made sense to me that they would have body parts that I hadn't heard of, and that those body parts would suffer strange but ultimately unserious ailments. I kept living my life.
I was watching TV one day when a commercial for the medical facility my father would die in eight years later, Fox Chase Cancer Center, came on. A series of serene looking white people pretended to consult with doctors about their cancers. One of them, or maybe one of the doctor-actors, or the low-rent voice over, said the word "colon." Sharp tack that I was, I put it all together.
I wandered into the room where my dad was reading and asked him if he had cancer.
"Yeah," he said.
That was that. There wasn't much else to say.
The most common words that you hear in connection with loss are that "there are no words," a testament to how quickly human pain runs up against the limits of language. But not until recently—ok, not until Instagram—maybe not until Paris Hilton's Instagram—have we been asked in earnest if human pain runs up against the limits of emojis.
My first instinct is to suspect a person who uses emojis in a public statement of grief to have murdered the person they're grieving. Emojis help to navigate irony in text, to clarify tone in a voiceless medium. I can't look at the yellow faces in Paris's Instagram post without wondering if she finds the death of her close friend hysterically sad or ha-ha funny. But I also wonder, looking at those emojis, if perhaps a grief that withdraws into something pre-literate or even post-literate—primal screams, pixelated faces—has simply found its perfect expression. If there are no words, then why not emojis? If there are no words, why not anything else?
About a year before the cancer commercial, Missy Elliot released a hit song called "Work it." That song has an amazing video, and in that video's second half, the camera zooms up and out from the hood of car where decent portraits of Aaliyah and Lisa "Left Eye" Lopez are spray-painted over the words "In Loving Memory," written in flowing script. I watched that video again a few months ago, and I burst out laughing when I saw that car. I don't find the deaths of Aaliyah or Left Eye funny. I miss Aaliyah with all the intensity that you can miss a perfect stranger. But I do find the fact of her painted face on a prop car in a Missy Elliot music video, whose lyrics include the words "shave my cha cha," a thing of delight, of truly beautiful bad taste that reveals the depth of Missy Elliot's comic genius and the depth of her grief.
I said a minute ago that the invocation of Aaliyah in the music video for "Work It" was something in arguably bad taste, but that would suggest I have some clear idea of what "good taste" looks like in a music video, or that good and bad taste are even viable metrics to apply to music videos, or that the piety inherent in the very concept of taste should preside over our relationship to pop cultural artifacts of the early millennium, or of now. It's more unclear to me how a person is supposed to grieve tastefully in a music video, or anywhere else. When we praise someone for having "good taste," we're candidly praising them for being a good consumer. But who knows what we're consuming when we grieve, except for a kind of sadness that no one has a taste for, one which we don't so much consume as find ourselves consumed by.
In private, taste is all but useless. My dad bought his grave plot and gravestone years before he died and would walk our dog in the cemetery where he's now buried. When I say "walk our dog," what I mean is that he would let her out of the car and drive very slowly while she galloped next to it, occasionally diving at the wheels, until she seemed sufficiently exercised. He did this just about every day, and every day he would drive past his own gravestone, which he had designed meticulously, and whose spot in the cemetery he took pride in. He taught me to drive in that cemetery. I would tool around in our pickup truck on the cemetery's single-lane roads, past busted mausoleums and dreary landscaping, and he would tell me to hang a left so we could visit his grave. "Hi dad!" he would say, waving at it through the window. "Hi dad!" I would say, knowing that it was terribly funny, knowing that it was terribly sad.
If you want to see how grief, popular culture, and the spooky futurity of the digital converge, open Google and search "Tupac Hologram Coachella." This will lead you to a YouTube video that pans slowly over a familiar human body that looks solid, yet it's possessed of the same graphic quality of an illustration. The camera pans up to the face of Tupac, who died in 1996, but who is also here, on stage, at a music festival in 2012, screaming, "Do you know what the fuck this is?" No, you can hear the audience thinking.
It seems that no one at Coachella really knew how to feel about this spectacle, but if they felt any one way about it in particular, it was uncomfortable. I watched this video over and over again when it first came out, always closing out my browser, with a spine-chilled shudder, whenever the virtual Tupac screamed, "What the fuck is up, Coachella?"
It seems that by turning Tupac into a virtual marionette, Coachella articulated a social taboo in the very moment of violating it. Now we know: Don't monetize your dead friends' holograms. It's vulgar, and it makes us feel weird. Also, it breaks our hearts. Resurrecting a person, bringing him back almost in body, only to let him flicker out again like a light—that reminds us of what we never forget, which is that whatever afterlives there are, or could be, won't ever be in this world. If I were reminded of that at Coachella, I would want my money back.
At its heart, the Tupac hologram is a monster, a lovely zombie from which we nevertheless recoil. It's repulsive in its way, but so is grief. Grief is always a limping, ugly thing, a Frankenstein stitched together from sundry parts. We all know its ugliness, have all felt it, in private—but in the shift from private to public pain is also a shift in our expectations of what feeling should look like, and indeed, what feeling should feel like.
Last year, The Atlantic interviewed a number of psychologists on the subject of grief and social media, many of whom locate a therapeutic power in the new communal structures of the internet. They suggest that grief becomes "a cry for warmth and sympathy in [the] otherwise superficial and narcissistic environment" of social media. Or that social media "[foments] the grieving process...sets it within the context of a community that comes together and says you are not alone." Their assertions maintain that grief, the basic hurt of it, is an unchanging, perhaps unchangeable thing—as one media psychologist puts it, "the primary drives for the behavior haven't changed." But they also suggest that social media offers that old hurt a new palliative: "the context of a community," which is to say the immediacy of an audience.
The digital age hasn't demolished our private spaces, as people like to claim. Instead, it's rebuilt them, annexed them to new, public, rooms, and in them we can do whatever we want with our pain. We can turn it into a hologram, make it sing and dance. Or we can show it on social media, curate it alongside the other petty artifacts of our private lives. That crying emoji that Paris Hilton used to talk about her dead friend on Instagram in bad taste by the metrics of public mourning. But the bewildering, bewildered emotion that emoji conveys is what grief often looks like when there are no witnesses, and the embarrassing service that social media provides is the ability to make ourselves witnessed even when we're alone.
My dad was the most intensely private person I ever knew, and he was so private about his illness that his parents and siblings didn't know he was sick until he was already dead. If he knew I had posted pictures of him on Facebook, the fight would have been endless. He wouldn't mind me writing what I'm writing now, but that's because he would never have denied me something that could make me feel better.
We had several arguments where he insisted that friends—I mean the very concept of friends—were superfluous additions to the true bedrock of life contained by the nuclear family. True to his principles, I don't think he had a single friend during my lifetime. But he also spent hours and hours on an online support group for people with cancer, which I know was a real comfort to him. I wrote earlier that he grieved in private; I wrote a moment ago that he's the most private person I ever knew. And yet so much of the grieving he did was private only insofar as it was private from me. The places it happened were in public, in the same public cemetery where I would grieve him later, and on the Internet, on a discussion forum not too dissimilar in structure from social media, where I could never imagine grieving him.
His trips to the cemetery originally struck me as perverse—his loitering in a park for dead people, around the monument to his unfinished life. But I know that his preoccupation with his own grave offered a very effective way of reckoning. When you spend eight years waiting to die, you're given the opportunity to grieve for yourself, and if you're a smart, strange man with a morbid sensibility, you might as well grieve yourself at your own grave. But his solo trips to his own grave made it so that my father's his fear and sadness were mostly hidden from us. He grieved in private, by which I mean he grieved in the privacy of the cemetery when I wasn't around.
I don't visit his grave often now that he's in it. I've gone three times all in all: at the burial with my mother and brother; another time alone, where I sobbed; and the last time, where I laughed at that terrible inside joke. There's a type of narrative symmetry in that triad as I've laid it out, one that describes a perfect trajectory of feeling that in fact has no resemblance to the trajectory of my grief. My grief has no trajectory. If I were to plot it on a graph, it would look like nothing at all. But if I could draw it, simply impose on it a shape, I would draw it like a tropical storm as you see in satellite pictures, a loosely organized thing spinning outward. And all I really mean by that comparison is that whatever shape grief takes, it's always a volatile, kinetic one, capable of drawing everything into itself or of dissolving into the ordinariness of the day.
I don't know when I'll visit his grave again. It doesn't offer me very much in terms of comfort—I think it comforted him more than it will ever comfort me. But I recognize it's a brilliant thing that he made, this slab of marble that has the day of his death on one side and a dumb joke on the other. Nothing could be more private or more public, nothing could better express the paradox of grief, which is that it demands to be seen by the world even as it withdraws from it. Grief needs a witness, but pretty much any witness will do—a child, a lover, a stranger, a website.
Often, I wonder what my father thought about when he stood before his grave, in the same place where I've stood and where I'll stand. I know that he thought about me thinking about him, that he grieved for me grieving for him. The circularity of this is what comforts me, the knowledge that my dad was a witness to the grief I feel now as I am a witness to the grief he felt then. I'll never see him again. To believe that—and I can't help but believe it—is to break my own heart. But all that grieving we did at his grave, I understand, gave us a way to witness each other through the years, to draw a perfect line of sight between his past and my future in which his death recedes to a kind of vanishing point, in which we aren't together, but we still aren't alone.