The Online Search for Grief Support

If there’s one thing religion has historically been good at, and its clergy and institutions used for, it is death management. Well, these days, with “None” the fastest growing religious identification? (more than 20% of all Americans, and more than 30% of those under age 32, so identified) it shouldn’t be surprising that close to a third of all funerals in America happen without any clergy.

Obviously, people are having funerals and mourning for loved ones. So what are they doing? Rather than engage religious authorities and institutions – the “cathedrals” – people are getting the resources they need to bury, mourn, grieve, and find meaning and comfort – from the “bazaar”.

Recently, the New York Times highlighted products and services arising in this bazaar. Via new social media platforms like and, people share stories, insights and advice from their own experience with death (“witnessing” in classic religious language), get resources (wisdom and practices) to help navigate this life passage and develop webs of relationships of support, comfort, and care (the classic definition of? “community”).

People seek peers who know the world has changed and that there’s no roadmap for handling grief.

These sites are attracting thousands of people who, in religious language, are a blessing for those who wonder if they’re alone in their emotions or the challenges they face after a loss. These online communities give witness not only to the enduring love people have for those they’ve lost, but for people’s capacity to help each other affirm life, despite loss. They do the jobs we need done when someone we love dies.

Just as technological innovation is disrupting every business model – retail stores, publishing, music, health care, universities, political revolutions, etc. – technology is now disrupting the business model of institutional religion. In classic disruptive innovation theory, a disruptive product or service addresses a market that isn’t being served and offers a simpler, cheaper, and more convenient alternative to the existing product. The usual critique by the incumbent business is that the new product is not as good, as powerful, or as authentic as the existing product (think iTunes vs. a record album, or Wikipedia vs. Encyclopedia Britannica) but all it needs to be is good enough to get the job done.

What do these new products and services that help people deal with death have in common?? Why are they working for people for whom the incumbent religious institutions and authorities aren’t?

These platforms – along with search engines, blogs, YouTube series, Facebook memorials and Instagram feeds about grief and loss – all respond to the needs and sensibilities of the increasing number of Americans mixing, blending, bending, and switching identities.? All these “spiritual” innovations transcend particular creeds and dogma. And like cable companies, they unbundle religious practices and rituals from their metaphysical and group contexts.

Platforms like these embrace the fact that there are as many ways to experience and express grief as there are people.? They encourage new norms, and invite people to customize their religious and spiritual choices (“have it your way,” as the jingle goes). People do not depend on experts, but on peers who know the world has changed and that there’s no roadmap for handling grief and who want to connect to other people equally confused on their journey.

What does this mean for the cathedrals of organized religion? We’re entering a brave new world for Americans increasingly disconnecting from traditional authorities and institutions. Forces that predominate in our culture, such as new media, entertainment, and information technologies will inevitably shape our spiritual values and behaviors. Will the cathedrals embrace the bazaar, or will the imagination and ingenuity of the bazaar influence the cathedrals? What new spiritual innovations are you using?


2 thoughts on “The Online Search for Grief Support”

  1. Thanks Litsa for your important clarification. Your platform is a beautiful and important example of what I call mixing the cathedral and the bazaar…it is the best of offering genuine expertise in an accessible and usable way for anyone, anywhere, anytime. Wisdom plus compassion plus practices that work meets technology…I have no doubt you are literally saving lives – and not only at 3:00Am

  2. Thank you guys so much for starting this great dialogue. We find that many visitors to our site have found great value and comfort in their faith and their faith communities. It seems sites like ours are there when the need them, to provide a little extra help. We would like to point out that at What’s Your Grief we are both mental health professionals. Though we do share our personal losses, we rely very heavily on our training and years of professional experience working with grievers. We wanted to clarify this, because though you article implies our site is just a place to share our own experiences, we believe one of the important things about our site is that we rely on and incorporate grief theory and evidence-based practices. For many grievers we think there is a great benefit to having the support of clergy and faith communities, while also having access to other easy-to-understand and concrete tools for coping with grief, even at 3am when there is no one to talk to but google!

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