In Defense of the Grief Selfie

Coping with Grief / Coping with Grief : Litsa Williams

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Once upon a time, Eleanor wrote an amazing post about self-portraits. In case you missed that post or failed to commit it to memory, she said:

"There was a time when I didn’t have the words to describe my grief even privately. In those early days, the only tool I had for self-expression was my camera. On the days when I felt really bad I would prop my camera up on a stack of books and take self-portraits, feverishly running back and forth between the shutter button and a pose, over and over again until I felt better. I truly don’t like being photographed, but it felt so satisfying to get my feelings out into the world without having to talk, describe, or explain. You want to know how I’m feeling? Look, this is how I’m feeling."

And in her essay “The Self-Portrait as Self-Therapy”, Cristina Nunez says:

“The expression of difficult emotions in the self-portrait is particularly therapeutic. Rage and despair often cannot be externalized, so we become accustomed to repressing them... by objectifying our ‘dark side’ in a photograph, we separate ourselves from what is painful and open ourselves up for catharsis and renewal.” 

She goes on to equate self-portraits to a punching bag, explaining something similar to what Eleanor describes above:

“I take enraged or desperate self-portraits to release the tension and I come out calm and satisfied”.

Self-portraits have an amazing power to communicate things we cannot put into words and can help us to look at ourselves and others in a deeply personal and intimate way.

Enter the selfie, stage right.

You probably thought we were being all artistic and self-important today with our talk of self-portraits.  Don’t worry, artsy-self-importance doesn’t last long around here.

Whereas Eleanor has thought and written a lot about self-portraits (because she is an amazing photographer), I am decidedly not a photographer and so I'm going to bring the conversation down a few notches. That's right, today we will be talking about an icon of teen existence, a cornerstone of Instagram, the most loved and hated social phenomenon since flash mobs: the selfie.

Selfies get a pretty bad rap.  Here are just a smattering of headlines I have seen about selfies: Scientists Link Selfies To Narcissism, Addiction, & Mental Illness, Are Selfies a Sign of Narcissism and Psychopathy?, Science Confirms Selfies are The Worst, and How This Generation’s Obsession with Selfies Correlates with Mental Disorders.

I have to admit, I have not been immune to the anti-selfie hype. I am old enough that cell phone cameras were not part of my teen existence. I don’t “get” selfies and, like so many things we don’t intuitively “get”, it is easy to dismiss or vilify them #SelfiesAreRuiningTheWorld.

But I have been opening my mind a bit lately. I read all the anti-selfie articles linked above and, guess what? They are pretty lame. The “research” cited includes just one study picked up by a zillion outlets which found not that taking selfies causes the issues described, but rather that those who already suffer from certain diagnoses may be more likely to post selfies. The articles reeked of confirmation bias and many left me silently yelling, Correlation is not causation! But that is a rant for another day.

The more I thought about this and read research on the therapeutic value of photography and self-portraits, the more my personal distaste for selfies felt a bit misplaced. Hospital selfies have been attacked online as gratuitous and self-involved, whereas a major Hollywood movie about Frida Khalo—an artist who spent her entire career painting self-portraits to of her physical pain and her psychological anguish—was nominated for six Academy Awards. And let’s not forget Andy Warhol, who became a cultural icon taking selfies long before they were "selfies". Yet the internet isn’t full of articles slamming Warhol and Kahlo for being psychopaths or narcissists or ‘the worst’. So what's the difference?  What makes an artistic, meaningful, valuable self-portrait and what makes a shallow, narcissistic selfie?

Ironically, some of the same sources who are quick to complain that no one is talking about death and grief are the first to write scathing critiques of the funeral selfie, the hospital selfie, or the grief selfie. And this is where I think we may need to take a step back and look at our own biases.

I love Frida Kahlo. I have found personal value in taking self-portraits to cope, and I've seen others do the same. And so, my thinking has begun to shift. Perhaps selfies are simply a new tool people are using to start the conversation around death, grief, and loss. If we want these conversations to exist, perhaps we need to be open to the many different formats those conversations may take. Two years ago, Twitter blew up with people attacking the funeral selfie. Even one of our favorite sites for social criticism, Jezebel, said of teens taking selfies at funerals:

What if we gave our duckfaced n'er do wells the obligation to engage with the real processes of death, to remind them that when someone dies that there is a real corpse and real grief left behind. Death is not an abstract concept. They could take part in a physical and emotional ritual beyond awkwardly lining up to file by an embalmed and made up body the funeral director has laid out under rose colored lights. No wonder these teenagers retreat to the bathroom to fix their hair and take a selfie in the mirror out of impotence and boredom. Our cultural traditions have failed them, and selfies at funerals are one of their only outlets to ritual and mourning in the age of the smartphone.

I get it, maybe that is all completely true. And maybe, just maybe, teens are using a format they are comfortable with (the selfie) to say to friends: Hey, something really crappy just happened in my life. I want you to know because I might need you and your support. When I was 14, I might have told my 3 best friends if my grandfather died—and I would have been limited to 3 friends for support. If I am 14 now and post a funeral or grief selfie, I tell all my friends—expanding my potential support and helping me open up in a safe comfortable space.

Same goes for the growing number of grief selfies popping up on death anniversaries, birthdays of people who have died, and other tough days. Maybe I don’t feel comfortable walking into school saying, It’s my mom’s birthday. It's going to be a crap day for me. But maybe posting a grief selfie captioned Missing my mom today. She would have turned 48. Happy birthday, Mom” is a way to express my pain, continue a connection to my mom, and let my friends know in a passive and non-threatening way what is going on with me.

Self-expression changes over time; music changes, art changes, writing changes. These changes come with criticism, skepticism, and pessimism. But just as there is public and private value in the self-portrait, perhaps the selfie offers us the same (and new) opportunities for communication, expression, and growth.

Does this mean it is never poor form to take a selfie? Of course not. A quick look at the short-lived, but much talked about, Selfies at Funerals page—as well as the the zillions of posts about poor-taste selfies —will quickly show that there are many selfies that will offend traditional decorum. Where I think we need to be cautious is that we don't assume because there are some questionable selfies out there, that there is no value in the dialogue these selfies can create.

I asked on Instagram if our followers had used selfies in a therapeutic way and I did a hashtag search to see where grief and selfies intersect. No surprise, there were many many examples. The more I scrolled, the more blurred the line between self-portrait and selfie became. It became more and more clear that it may be my own bias that was leading me to discount the value in a selfie, when a closer look turned up value I never expected. I started thinking, What are some selfie benefits?

Selfies can create a timeline of our grief. If you take selfies over time, like self-portraits, you can see where you were at a moment in time.

Selfies help us see growth and healing. Though this is a very literal version of this, selfies over time can let us see healing—yes, both physical and emotional healing. Here is a video of a guy who was doing a selfie-a-day project when his face was slashed; he kept up the project to document his healing journey.

Selfies can be shared with your therapist or support group. If you get into taking selfies or other self-portraits when you are experiencing difficult moments or emotions, these can be a great way to kick off a conversation with your therapist or support group.

Selfies can help us find gratitude. When we’re grieving, it's easy to focus on how miserable life is.  Taking a good old traditional selfie in a moment that we are with friends, having fun, or doing something we love can be a reminder of the good that exists in the especially dark moments. Oh, and sometimes your big, doofy pit bull can help with gratitude in the midst of taking a self-portrait. 

selfie with pet dog, pitbull

Selfies help us express grief triggers. Grief triggers are everywhere. They can hit us like a ton of bricks.  In the moment, when you are an emotional mess or blubbering like an idiot, taking a photo can help you to observe the moment and yourself. In opening my mind to selfies, I found this great article by Doug Ronning on Selfie Self-Exploration, ideas for using selfies for self-exploration. He gives ideas for experimenting with selfies, and these are some of my favorites from the article:

  1. Emotional Selfies – Photograph or videotape yourself in an emotional state: anxious, sad, frustrated, amorous or lonely. These kinds of images can remind us that, even when deeply felt, emotions are chemical and temporary.
  2. Shadow Selfies – Carl Jung implored people to know their shadow: “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.” Finding meaningful and contained ways to express your shadow can prevent it from coming out in more self-destructive or dangerous ways. And, as anyone who has dressed up as a monster for Halloween knows, it’s fun to express dark impulses. What forms does your shadow take?
  3. Archetypal Selfies – How do you relate to the elements: fire, air, earth, water? Is there an animal you feel a deep affinity for? A Goddess or mythic character that resonates for you? Find a way to capture the essence of these archetypal images in a self-portrait.
  4. Ancestor Selfies – Combine genealogy with self-exploration, learn about those who came before you and honor their place in your genes. Wear your grandfather’s fedora or your great grandmother’s jewelry. Dress in era appropriate attire for when they were your age. Find a way to exemplify the ideals you share with them.
  5. Visioning Selfies – Take a selfie inhabiting a role you want to take on but have yet to. Want to learn to play guitar? Take a photo of yourself holding one. Want to write a novel? Take a picture of yourself typing the title page. Want to make sandwiches to pass out to the needy? Take a photo of yourself making a sandwich. These can serve as inspirational reminders. Who knows as you strum, write, or make a sandwich, it may just segue into the act and move toward becoming a habit.
  6. Opposite Selfies – What do you consider opposite from yourself? If you are shy, imagine being outgoing. What would it mean to embody the ”opposite” end of the political spectrum? An earnest exploration of radical difference can lead to empathy and understanding.

Don’t forget to check out all the great self-portrait suggestions in Eleanor’s post on grief self-portraits. If you create or have a self-portrait you would love to share, please submit it to our PhotoGrief or tag us on Instagram @whatsyourgrief.

What do you think about selfies? Let us know in the comments if and how you are using self-portraits and grief selfies to cope.

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After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible, real-life book!

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8 Comments on "In Defense of the Grief Selfie"

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  1. Erika  August 25, 2018 at 9:22 pm Reply

    When my childhood dog died a few months ago, one of the last things I did with him as he laid on the vet table to be euthanized was I took a selfie with him. I asked him to, “give me one last smile.” I felt so guilty about that. How could I smile as he lay there, dying? But I took the picture anyway. I knew I had gotten that line from one video game or another, but I couldn’t remember which one. About a month later, I decided to replay one of my favorite games. I knew it probably wasn’t a good idea, since a beloved character dies in it. When I got to that part, this character asks the player to give her one last smile. That’s when I started coming to terms with the idea that maybe I shouldn’t feel guilty about taking that selfie with my dog.

  2. Mary  June 23, 2016 at 2:11 am Reply

    I remember taking 1 selfie during the deepest, darkest, grief that I had experienced after my husband’s sudden unexpected death. I remember feeling like I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t express the devastation in my heart because I was so overwhelmed by it that day. I remember I jumped up, landed hard, and let out a very raspy low grunt, like I was physically trying to rid myself of the extreme grief that I felt. I was still in my pajamas in the afternoon as I could barely leave my bed or the house, save to walk the dog. I never took another one. The one I took truly felt a little cathartic and, as stated in the blog, helped me express the pain when I knew I didn’t have any words. Grief makes you experience multiple conflicting emotions and feelings all at the same moment. The physical and emotional act of spontaneously recording that one extra dreadful moment gave me some relief when I simply had no words for it. I wish that I knew where it was stored, probably on my prior laptop, as I’d like to look at it again. It’s been nearly 8 years so hopefully I can look at it from a stronger place. I miss him every day but have moved forward with my life.

    • Litsa  June 25, 2016 at 10:20 pm Reply

      Ah Mary, what an incredibly perfect description of why selfies/self-portraits can be therapeutic. It would be interesting if you could see the photo again because, much like with journaling, it can be valuable to look back at where we were in a different moment of our grief.

  3. Henry  February 9, 2016 at 2:48 pm Reply

    I lost my beloved grandfather to brain cancer a month ago. A few days before he passed, I had a moment alone with him to say some things (he was unresponsive at this point). Naturally, I became a complete mess. I then unexpectedly got the impulse to take a selfie, an impulse I rarely experience in my normal life, let alone during such an incredibly sad moment.

    I’m glad I took it. At times over the past month, I’ve felt that none of this is real, especially on the days when the the ordinary joys of life make my grief feel remote. When I look at the picture, I feel every emotion of that moment. In some ways, it is like opening a wound, but it also reminds me of the love I shared with my grandfather, and that I’ve survived peering into an emotional abyss.

  4. Vicki Bee  January 29, 2016 at 12:31 pm Reply

    I don’t like the way my camera chooses to take self portraits; it refuses to show anything but the person’s face and that’s where the ‘focal point’ of the photo always is. My daughter’s godfather is a professional photographer and has always taken portraits with himself included but he uses a camera that has a timer on it. It must have a timer because he sets up the picture first, with other people in it, and then joins the group before the camera snaps the photo.
    He’s a cinematographer and photographer. He showed me some digital photos he took that made me disgustingly jealous until I found out he spent almost $3k just for the camera – and even with that it didn’t have every feature available. I can’t believe they cost that much.
    I don’t think I could have taken the photo he did even if I’d had a great camera. He’s a professional. He showed me a movie he did camerawork for and it was really great. I don’t know exactly what it takes to make a good movie but I liked all the work that was his.

  5. Jolene  September 12, 2015 at 6:16 pm Reply

    As someone who has been the designated and/or self-appointed photographer at many gatherings, I have often said to those who protest (e.g. “You’re ALWAYS taking pictures of me!”, etc.) , “You might not appreciate it today, but someday the people who have loved you will appreciate HAVING these photos of you.” And as the person who is so frequently BEHIND the lens of the camera, it is not lost on me that there are far fewer photos of ME than of anyone else I know/care about/spend time with (at least in MY possession). And perhaps I won’t ever miss having a bunch of photos of myself (although I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy reminiscing over photos that I’m in), but I know what it feels like to wish I had more photos of myself with the people I love (like my mom and dad, who are both gone now, or my Grandma, who only visited us once when I was little and yet, no photos of me with her…) So I have become quite unabashedly assertive in handing my camera to others (even complete strangers) to make sure I get some photos of myself at places I like to be and, more importantly, with people I love. I’m so glad that I make it a regular practice now…and still mourn the fact that I didn’t get to that point before my mom died. At any rate, there are so many great ideas and reasons listed above for the selfie, and I’d just like to add this one more…that the people who love you will appreciate them when you’re not around (for whatever reason). Thanks for another intriguing and thought-provoking blog. I just love the work you two do! 🙂

  6. Vicki  August 24, 2015 at 3:27 pm Reply

    I thought it was disgusting that my brother took a picture of our biological mother (I’m adopted) while lying in her casket. And now I have a photo of it too.
    He would have been sorely disappointed at Eric’s funeral bc none of the body survived the fire that took his life and was set on purpose, apparently in order to make the killers martyrs and thus more pleasing to “allah” when they get there. Which was right after they flew the planes into the towers and killed thousands of people, including my daughter’s dad.
    Everyone else in my family gets cremated so you couldn’t take a picture of them either. When the mom who adopted me died her picture was on a table at the memorial. My sister cried rivers of tears when a song came on but I felt almost nothing at all, which makes no sense but I haven’t tried to figure it out beyond the fact that it totally puzzles me.
    I liked her better than my biological mother but I didn’t really get along with her either. Unfortunately I’m nothing like her. My sister (who’s also adopted) IS like her bc my sister was 5 when she was adopted, not 11.
    It’s even worse that I feel nothing about my grandma (the only grandparents I knew were all in my adopted family) and I was really close to her compared to my mom. But I’ve never cried about her death either. I haven’t been able to feel any emotions at all, in a normal way, since what happened to Eric and I don’t understand why.

  7. Darlene Walker  August 23, 2015 at 11:14 pm Reply

    Throughout my growing up years and my late husband’s there was always a funeral photo of some family member in the album book. I always thought it was gross but as family gathered around each other the stories of that person would weave their magic. I may not have know that person when I saw the picture but after the family gathering around it, I had a clear picture of who that person was a living person. I also remember shaking the old Polaroid pictures waiting for the “selfies” to appear. We just didn’t call them that at the time. I think that a lot of people dislike selfies because some people have no boundaries on what may be in good tastes. What is okay to one person is horrific to another. I have done some selfies and I love them. They have shown me how far I have come in 8 years since my husbands death. They are historical and cathartic. Young people today need them more than ever because they are having less and less face to face conversations with other people in and outside of their lives. Technology, in my opinion, is a gift and a hindrance. We have to find the balance.

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