Don’t break the news of death on social media

Don’t break the news of  death on social media

It has been an uncommon last few days, with the loss of well-known personalities in the country. The wave started with veteran politician GG Kariuki, followed by the Cabinet Secretary for Interior, General Joseph Nkaissery,  retired politician Nicholas Biwott and former diplomat Bethuel Kiplagat.

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As the country mourns these public figures, thousands of families across the country mourn the loss of their loved ones privately. The grief felt by all is unfathomable and as friends, we can only provide a shoulder to cry on in times of distress.

One of the most critical matters when it comes to death, is breaking the sad news to family members. In the case of a patient who has been hospitalised for a long time and demise is more or less expected, things are a little easier because most times, family will be present and are less shocked, even if no less emotional.

The patient care team is able to break the news directly to the family as the first recipients. Thereafter, the family members may call whomever they deem appropriate and pass on the news in an orderly fashion. This gives them control over the process.

In the case of sudden death, matters are much more complicated. The patient may arrive at the hospital already dead or may die following failed resuscitation at the emergency room. Here the scenario plays out a lot differently. In both instances, the emergency room team bears the responsibility of confirming death, even to those who may bring in their loved one, having already passed on.


Once this confirmation is done, the reality is forced on to the family and this gives way to shock and denial. Reactions will vary; some will scream and shout and punch walls, others may lose consciousness, and those with medical conditions will have flare-ups of negative symptoms such as a sharp rise in blood pressure and others go mute.

These moments of intense pain call for a lot of understanding and support. And herein lies the problem with social media. The world over, there is a need to develop social media etiquette around death, more so in Kenya. We have all been guilty of breaking this unwritten code, from our well-intentioned RIP posts on Twitter, to downright callous posts of pictures identifying tragic accident victims.

As we post past pictures of the deceased on social media within minutes of their demise, do we stop to think if the immediate family has already been informed? My friend was admitted to hospital with severe depression when her dad passed on. I learnt about it on social media and attempted to call her to offer support, not knowing that she was in the hospital. Thankfully she was not allowed to have a phone and that saved the day when I would have stuck my foot right in my mouth!

The worst happens after road accidents. The role of passing on the information to the family belongs to the police. When I lost my brother 15 years ago in an accident in Naivasha where he lived, my sister-in-law was informed by the police and then she called us. Thanks to the era of analogue, both my parents had the luxury of hearing the sad news of losing their first son from their own children rather than strangers on the phone. To this day, I am grateful for that.

Nowadays, everyone with a smartphone wants to be the first to break news on social media with grisly videos and snapshots. The rolling cameras are more important than remembering to dial the emergency line or to offer help.

This despicable behaviour has gradually become acceptable. With the world on the palm of our hands, Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp, Instagram and many other platforms have been abused. It is worse when the departed is a well-known personality. Conspiracy theories about the cause of death abound and the bereaved are stripped of their private moments to absorb their losses. The departed is judged and his character assassinated by a public that comprises of perfect strangers, and the family knows no peace. They could as well have been stripped naked and hung in the public square.

As we continue to entertain this terrible behaviour, let us take note of the damage it causes: The orphaned children may be scarred for life by the callous dissection of their parent by strangers they will never meet. These children live in a society in school and in their places of social interaction. Your strong negative sentiments will certainly impact their future interactions with their peers and may result in a negative effect on their personality.


The mother who lost her son may be hypertensive and the cold manner of breaking the news may result in an unwarranted stroke or even a heart attack.

The wife who may have travelled out of the country, not knowing her husband was shot by thugs on his way home may see the news on her Facebook account when she accesses Wi-Fi in a foreign hotel room, wondering why she has 600 new notifications, before her brother-in-law gets through to her on phone. The devastation she will face in the lonely state is enough to break her spirit

Bad news triggers a stress reaction in the body, with production of neurotransmitters and hormones that may be detrimental to health. Adrenaline will trigger the immediate sudden reaction to fight the reality of the sad news, powered by noradrenaline which prepares your body to respond.

These may pass, but the cascade they activate of cortisol response, when sustained, results in long-term negative effects on the body. Repeatedly hammering the same sad message home does more harm than good. The bereaved persons must be allowed space and privacy to mourn and start the healing process.

Before you post another one of those offhand messages, ask yourself: Am I the right person to do this? Is this what the most private member of the family would have wanted? Is it necessary? Would I better express my support to the bereaved privately?

Remember, even the most disliked personality has someone somewhere mourning them. Even Adolf Hitler was mourned! And never, ever make comments that make you more entitled to grief than the bereaved!


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