In times of grief, we tend to search for support from loved ones and personal support networks. In addition to the support received from relatives and friends, people seek for help in professional settings, such as from doctors, therapists and organized support groups.
Nowadays, one can also turn to various social media accounts. These accounts are often managed by individuals who are themselves experiencing grief and loss and where they share their journey and their feelings after the death of a loved one. As their audience grows, they may gain the status of a “lifestyle guru”, a social media influencer focusing on lifestyle and self-improvement. In this scenario, the belief in professionals has been replaced by the belief in a person’s lived experience and traditional credentials has been partially replaced by a follower count.
Social media offers useful tools for promoting oneself and for creating a public identity. Self-branding refers to methods used for building a public image in order to achieve commercial gain or otherwise increase one’s cultural capital (broadly defined as forms of cultural and social advantages that help determine individual´s status within a given society). The practices of self-branding are often driven by commercial interests. In order to stand out from the crowd, the lifestyle/grief gurus must portray themselves as unique and authentic. Authenticity is created through sharing personal, sometimes even taboo-like stories of one’s life, for example talking about one´s health issues or about grieving the loss of a partner.
Social media bio texts (short descriptions of the user) allow lifestyle gurus to showcase their credentials and describe in which areas of life they might be considered “experts”; in the context of grief, these can be, for example, a widow, a single mother, a grief coach. Following this, it is common to describe what the account provides, for example, “follow my journey from loss to finding happiness again” or “navigate grief with intention + radiate again.” Often, a link to the account holder’s website is included in the social media bio. It is common for lifestyle gurus in general to mention terms such as survival, journey, or finding happiness, but these terms are also typical of influencers focusing on grief.
While the support received from engaging with such a social media account can be meaningful both for the lifestyle guru and their followers, this phenomenon also highlights some interesting traits of the contemporary Western society: in the context of grieving, we are witnessing social media platforms being used for the commercialization of grief, the consequences of which remain unknown. In this blog post, I focus on this aspect of digital death and death-based practices.
Lifestyle gurus as grief influencers
The way lifestyle gurus as grief influencers are sharing their life situation depends on the platform. On Instagram, for example, grieving-based accounts are often created by people who has lost their partner or child. Here, in addition to sharing their feelings relating to the loss, they also provide actionable tips on how they are coping. As the audience grows, the marketing companies start to show interest and offer possibilities to make sponsored posts. It is therefore common to find co-operations with different brands, where the specific situation (death and grief) has been taken into consideration, for example, sponsored posts with a company offering pillows featuring a photo of the dead loved one or cloud-shaped earrings to remind you of the deceased. There are also more traditional commercials with fashion brands and beauty products focusing on the bereaved´ s beauty and lifestyle rather than highlighting the loss. In addition to commodified co-operation, some of the grief influencers start to refer to themselves as ‘grief coaches’. Under the title of grief coach, they offer services such as guidebooks, blog posts and podcasts, as well as free guidance on their social media account. All this attracts the attention of the audience, and this attention turns into profit for the platforms.
When consumption and consumerist logic are being mixed with grief and grieving, we are faced with some ethical questions. When confronted with death and dying, people are often in a vulnerable state. In such situations, essential oil that might help you sleep or a collagen treatment that smoothens out “crying wrinkles” might appear as attractive solutions. Yet, when coping with one's grief is in the hands of a lifestyle guru or self-acclaimed grief coach, the person in grief might end up paying a high price for feeling better. The price, however, might be also mental. What happens when grief is outsourced on platforms or when it becomes professionalised and an issue to be cured by someone on social media? The motivations of the grief influencer may further be considered misaligned in situations where the influencer is taking an advantage of others’ grief by making mourning-based content and using high-visibility hashtags only to increase their own status and celebrity position. This phenomenon has been emerging especially after the big global events, such as terror attacks or natural disasters.
However, we should not assume that no benefits are to be had from searching for help from an online support group. The grief influencers and their followers might have some valuable knowledge and ways to offer peer support which might be hard to find elsewhere. There is still a lot of research to be done to better understand the motivations, mechanisms, and effects of grief influencers and the ways in which practices of grieving might be changing in the context of digital media.
Abidin, C. (2022) Grief hypejacking: Influencers, #ThoughtsAndPrayers, and the commodification of grief on Instagram, The Information Society, 38(3): 174-187.
Baker, A. S. and Rojek C. (2020). Lifestyle Gurus – Constructing Authority and Influence Online. Polity Press.
Khamis, S., Ang, L. and Welling, R. (2017). Self-branding, ´micro-celebrity´ and the rise of social media influencers. Celebrity Studies, 8(2): 191-208.