Illustrations: Katya Dorokhina

How to Write Anything

How to Say the Right Thing Online When Someone Dies

Here’s how to express sympathy and grief on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or anywhere

Forge
Published in
5 min readMay 21, 2020

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This story is part of Forge’s How to Write Anything series, where we give you tips, tricks, and principles for writing all the things we write in our daily lives online, from tweets to articles to dating profiles.

When someone famous dies, first come the tweets. “RIP” after “RIP.” Strings of broken heart emojis. Maybe a few “NOOOOOOO!”s. It’s a digital gasp, expressing pure emotion.

Then you start seeing more substantive messages. Anecdotes. Specific memories. Photos. Within hours, thoughtful Instagram eulogies are posted.

Little Richard felt more legendary than human before he died. Upon his death, when virtually every musician in the world took to social media to express their grief and admiration — even Bob Dylan fired up Twitter — he became real and embodied.

Like any eulogy, online tributes to the deceased — on sympathy walls, on Facebook, on Instagram — give voice to our grief but tell the story of the person as we saw them. Like all powerful eulogies, they honor both the person and the people feeling grief.

But unlike a traditional obituary or church-dais eulogy, which are usually written or delivered by one person, digital remembrances are a collective effort. And they’re not just for famous people: From reading the “tribute wall” at a funeral home in Illinois, I was able to piece together a vivid portrait of a gregarious truck driver who once plowed a path to an open road for two stranded motorists so they could get home on Christmas Eve. The brushstrokes that painted the picture I imagined of him came from numerous sources — a high school classmate, a niece — to form a clear picture that could not have existed in the predigital world.

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Chuck Thompson
Forge
Writer for

Author of five books including Better Off Without ’Em: A Northern Manifesto for Southern Secession, and the comic travel memoir Smile When You’re Lying.