Sunday, February 19, 2017

Death and Grief in the Digital Age: Interview with Carla Sofka, Ph.D.

[Episode 109] Today’s episode of the Social Work Podcast is about Death and Grief in the Digital Age. I spoke with Dr. Carla Sofka, professor of Social Work at Siena College. Dr. Sofka has been studying and writing about the intersection of technology and death and grief since the earliest days of the world wide web. Her edited 2012 text, Dying, Death and Grief in an Online Universe, looks at how changes in communication technology have revolutionized the field of thanatology.

In today’s episode we talk about the role of social media in how, why, where and when, who we grieve. She shares stories of people whose loved ones have died, only to find out that because of social media they are the last to know. Carla provides some digital literacy around death and grief in the digital age. She talks about social media posts as death notifications, about establishing digital advance directives and thinking about our digital dust.

She talks about STUG reactions which are Sudden Temporary Upsurges of Grief. I had never heard of a STUG reaction, but I actually had one during our conversation. You’ll hear me talk about college friend of mine who died several years ago and during the interview start to tear up as I recalled getting a Facebook notification that it was her birthday.  We then talked about internet ghosts, memorial pages, memorial trolls, how and when people should respond to death notices online and what that means for the loved ones. She suggests that just as we provide sex education to kids, we should be providing death education.  She also recommends including technology assessment in the standard biopsychosocialspiritual assessment. We ended our conversation talking about resources for mental health professionals who want to learn more.

Download MP3 [34:14]




Bio 

Carla Sofka, Ph.D., MSW, is a Professor of Social Work at Siena College in Loudonville, NY.  In addition to teaching the introductory course in social welfare and social work, Dr. Sofka teaches research methods and social work practice courses.  She also teaches a Franciscan Concern Diversity course entitled Death, Diversity, and Pop Culture and has taught an online continuing education course on Death and Grief in the Digital Age. Dr. Sofka has conducted service learning projects in conjunction with the World Trade Center Exhibit at the New York State Museum and has studied how museums related to tragedy serve as healing spaces. Her current research focuses on how digital and social media resources are used to cope with illness, death, and grief.  Dr. Sofka currently serves as the co-chair of the Council on Social Work Education's Technology in Social Work Education and Practice Track and is a past president of the Association for Death Education and Counseling.

Transcript

Introduction
Hey there podcast listeners, Jonathan here. Today’s episode of the Social Work Podcast is about Death and Grief in the Digital Age. I want you to take a moment and think about the people you know who died in the past year. Were they friends, colleagues, or celebrities? How did you find out? Did their deaths rock your world? Did you find yourself in the throes of grief, unable to focus on the tasks at hand? Or, were they a moment in your day that went by almost unnoticed? I don’t know your friends and loved ones who died last year. But I am pretty sure we mourned some of the same celebrity deaths.

Prince, David Bowie, Carrie Fisher & Debbie Fisher, George Michael, Harper Lee, Alan Rickman, Muhammad Ali, Arnold Palmer, Elie Weisel, Nancy Reagan, Gene Wilder, Sir George Martin, Leonard Cohen… and the list goes on and on and on.

It seemed like every week on social media there was another breaking news item about a celebrity who died.  And I was wondering – is it just that I’m spending more time on social media, or are more celebrities dying? Apparently I’m not the only one who asked that question. A quick Google search found an article from the BBC on this very topic. In 2016 BBC news published more celebrity obituaries in than in any other year. Nearly half of those deaths happened in the first three months of 2016, and in the last two weeks of 2016 the BBC reported 9 celebrity deaths.

Now, for the scientists in the crowd I know that counting obituaries isn’t a rigorous empirical method for establishing death rates. But for the rest of us, it wasn’t just that 2016 had more celebrity deaths. It was that those bumps at the beginning and the end of the year that made it seem like they were coming fast and furious. And social media gave us a way to share about it and talk about it and grieve together in ways that never would have happened 20 years ago. Not only did I learn things I never knew about these celebrities, but I also learned things about my friends.  Social media made it possible for us to grieve and share together.

But enough about Ziggy Stardust, Prince, and Princess Leia. Let’s get back to you. If you had a loved one die last year, did you feel pressured by the current zeitgeist of “if it didn’t happen on social media it didn’t really happen?” How did you come to the decision to post or not to post? When you thought about the post, did you welcome the flood of condolences or did it make you want to run and hide?  There are so many questions about death and grief in the digital age. And that’s why I spoke with Dr. Carla Sofka, professor of Social Work at Siena College. Dr. Sofka has been studying and writing about the intersection of technology and death and grief since the earliest days of the world wide web. Her edited 2012 text, Dying, Death and Grief in an Online Universe, looks at how changes in communication technology have revolutionized the field of thanatology, which is a fancy word for the study of death. She has chapters about death education, thanatechnology, which is a fancy word for the intersection of technology and death studies, and how to build online communities of support – one of my favorite chapter titles is “In Cyberspace, There's No Such Thing as Disenfranchised Grief”.  

In today’s episode we talk about the role of social media in how, why, where and when, who we grieve. She shares stories of people whose loved ones have died, only to find out that because of social media they are the last to know. Carla provides some digital literacy around death and grief in the digital age: she talks about social media posts as death notifications, about establishing digital advance directives and thinking about our digital dust. She talks about STUG reactions which are Sudden Temporary Upsurges of Grief. I had never heard of a STUG reaction, but I actually had one during our conversation. You’ll hear me talk about college friend of mine who died several years ago and during the interview start to tear up as I recalled getting a Facebook notification that it was her birthday.  We then talked about internet ghosts, memorial pages, memorial trolls, how and when people should respond to death notices online and what that means for the loved ones. She suggests that just as we provide sex education to kids, we should be providing death education.  She also recommends including technology assessment in the standard biopsychosocialspiritual assessment. We ended our conversation talking about resources for mental health professionals who want to learn more. If you’re interested in other podcast episodes about death, I highly recommend starting with the list put together by Qeepr.com: http://www.qeepr.com/blog/best-podcast-episodes-about-death/.

Before we get to the episode, I want to give a shout out to Tierra Montgomery, college student transferring  into Mathematics at USC-Aiken, for generously donating the transcription of Episode 100 – Private Practice with Dr. Julie Hanks. If you want to support the podcast by donating a transcript, please send me an email. You can join the community of listeners on Twitter and Facebook.  We’re doing an audience survey and I would love to get your feedback. The link is on the top right of the Social Work Podcast website. And, if you love the podcast, please leave a review on iTunes.

And now, without further ado, on to episode 109 of the Social Work Podcast: Death and Grief in the Digital Age: Interview with Carla Sofka, Ph.D.


Interview
(Transcript forthcoming)

References & Resources

  1. Sofka, C. (2017). Digital survivor advocacy: Fighting so you may never know tragedy.  In S.E. Elswick (Ed.), Data Collection:  Methods, ethical issues, and future directions (pp. 111-145). Hauppauge, NY:  Nova Science Publishers.
  2. Sofka, C. (2017). Role of digital and social media in supporting bereaved students. In J. Brown & S. Jimerson (Eds.), Supporting Bereaved Students at School (pp. 96-111). Oxford: Oxford University Press. 
  3. Sofka, C., Gibson, A., & Silberman, D. (in press).  Digital immortality or digital death Contemplating digital end of life planning.  In M.H. Jacobsen (Ed.), Postmortal SocietyAldershot, UK: Ashgate/Routledge.
  4. Sofka, C. (2015, October 21). Using Digital and Social Media in your Work with the Dying and Bereaved. Webinar presented for the Association for Death Education and Counseling. Information about the webinar recording is available at: http://www.adec.org/adec/Main/Continuing_Education/Webinars/Webinar_Details/ADEC_Main/Continuing-Education/We/ Webinar_Details_Folder/Webinar_Details.aspx?webinar=WEB1015 
  5. Sofka, C. (2014).  Adolescents’ use of technology and social media to cope with grief.  In K. Doka & Tucci, A.S. (Eds.), Living with Grief:  Helping Adolescents Cope with Loss (pp. 205-228). Washington, DC: Hospice Foundation of America.
  6. Sofka, C.J., Noppe Cupit, I. & Gilbert, K. (2012). Dying, Death and Grief in an Online Universe:  For Counselors and Educators.  NY:  Springer.
  7. Sofka, C.J. (1997).  Social support "internetworks", caskets for sale, and more:  Thanatology and the information superhighway.  Death Studies, 21, 553-574.





APA (6th ed) citation for this podcast:

Singer, J. B. (Producer). (2017, February 19). #109 - Death and Grief in the Digital Age: Interview with Carla Sofka, Ph.D. [Audio Podcast]. Social Work Podcast. Retrieved from http://www.socialworkpodcast.com/2017/02/digital-death.html

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