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The grief ’gram: rethinking our ‘highlights’ reel

15 April 2021

When Instagram has historically been used as a highlights reel of life’s best moments, what happens when you share your lowest? Isabelle Truman investigates.

WORDS BY Isabelle Truman

Smashed iPhone Instagram

Chrissy Teigen is both a model and a cooking show host and is also the wife of musician John Legend, but none of these titles explains her immense popularity. That comes down to what people dub her ‘relatability’: how unfiltered, blunt, and funny she is; how she’ll share warts and all with her millions of followers. 

But on 1 October 2020, Teigen shared a post vastly different to her usual content, which consists for the most part of cooking and candid photos of her family. This time, the 34-year-old was sobbing on a hospital bed, her head down and immeasurable pain etched all over her face. The black-and-white images show the moments after she lost her third child, a boy she and Legend had named Jack. Due to placental complications, doctors had to induce labour at 20 weeks and Teigen and Legend, who entered the hospital pregnant, left out the same doors without their baby. 

“We are shocked and in the kind of deep pain you only hear about, the kind of pain we’ve never felt before. We were never able to stop the bleeding and give our baby the fluids he needed, despite bags and bags of blood transfusions. It just wasn’t enough,” Teigen wrote in part alongside the photos.

 “Jack worked so hard to be a part of our little family, and he will be, forever.”

Teigen’s post was met with expressions of compassion, sympathy, and love, but at the same time, she was bombarded with criticism and abuse. Because she opened up about her suffering, because she took photos of the heartbreaking moment, and because she dared to share publicly the pain so many women have felt, people took it upon themselves to critique her, masking their judgement as concern. 

Some said the couple were capitalising on a sad moment; others said their pain should have been kept private; and, shockingly, a few chose to make a statement about Teigen and Legend’s support for abortion rights, as if losing a wanted child meant you could never have been in a position where you didn’t want — or couldn’t have — one.

Chrissy Teigen, Instagram

Though it’s not up to us to debate why she chose to share these photos with the world, Teigen is a woman who’s had a public life for a long time. She had walked fans through every moment of her pregnancy, including the complications that led her to be hospitalised. For parents who lose their babies to miscarriages and stillbirths, there are no memories to hold on to — photos like these may end up being one of the few pieces of evidence of their child’s existence. 

Of course, it makes sense that Teigen would want to have her third baby in the space where she shares so much of her other two children. Perhaps it was one of her ways of keeping Jack’s memory alive, of adding him to her feed alongside the rest of her family. 

CANCELLLED! 

The rise of cancel culture has meant that keyboard warriors think they have a free pass to say whatever pops into their mind with no repercussions. Somewhat unsurprisingly, even the President of the US, Donald Trump, has trolled Teigen on numerous occasions. But the great thing about social media is that if you don’t like what you see, you can just keep scrolling. You can have thoughts about Teigen’s post and you can sit in the knowledge that if it was you in the same situation, you might choose to act differently. These assessments are valid, but what’s not valid is the need to tell a grieving mother them.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 100 pregnancies at and beyond the 20-week mark is affected by stillbirth, and close to 24,000 babies are born stillborn every year. 15 per cent of known pregnancies end in a first-trimester miscarriage. Telling women how they should or shouldn’t share their vulnerability in public is yet another way of reinforcing the boundaries of acceptability for womanhood. From adolescence, women are taught not to talk about living in a reproductive body — about periods, cramps, sex, miscarriages, birth control, and abortion.

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Making women’s emotions seem like they are out of control, embarrassing, or inappropriate is just another way of dismissing or judging them. Teigen doesn’t need our concern, she needs our compassion. She needs us to trust that this is something she wants to do, not just for her own healing but for the hundreds of thousands of other women who have experienced a similar trauma.

Ella Peters, who devastatingly lost her baby at 31 weeks in August after he survived for a week in the hospital, had been following Teigen’s pregnancy with trepidation. 

“Considering my recent pregnancy journey, I knew that what she was calling ‘a shitty placenta’ was not a good sign of things to come,” she says. 

“When Chrissy stopped posting for a couple of days, I was immediately triggered and was anxiously awaiting her announcement — I just knew.”

“In some ways, Chrissy’s bravery in sharing stepped into the void of my own,” Peters continues.

 “Though every story of pregnancy and infant loss is different, her photos and words told my story. Her pain was my pain. When I lost my son, I was terrified that people would forget about him. I felt that fear in Chrissy’s post: the need to share, the need to say his name.” 

A week after Teigen’s announcement, Peters shared her own, something she says was, in part, prompted by Teigen, but also served as a way to inform those around her of what had happened in a bid to stop traumatic questions about her pregnancy from well-meaning acquaintances. 

“Chrissy’s post acted as a reminder to me — and hopefully others — that I was valid in my desire to share,” she says.

VERSUS REALITY

Instagram has long been known for being a highlights reel. But the older I get, the sillier it seems that we hide so much of our real selves from the world. Why do we hide the messy parts? The heartbreaking parts? They’re as real as the good days — as the engagements, the first-home buys, the pregnancy announcements. Moreover, these life experiences, grief and trauma and pain, connect us to others in a way that nothing else does. 

Like many others, I have lost people close to me: when I was 15, a close friend died in a car accident; when I was 19, my ex-boyfriend died the same way; and when I was 24, my stepdad died of brain cancer after a long and exhausting six-month battle. Through every one of these experiences, I grew closer to those who loved the same people and to others who had experienced a similar bereavement. 

Still, to this day, when I see a friend has lost a parent, I’ll reach out. Sometimes I’ll send hot tips (such as routinely deleting social media ahead of Father’s Day) and other times, I’ll share with them the words that helped me the most: that grief is not linear, that you will still laugh. Their vulnerability in revealing their pain publicly creates a bridge, a support network, and an all-important shared connection to others. 

“Life involves discomfort and my big bugbear with social media is that it gives such a false picture of the world in which we live,” says Lucy Hone, whose 12-year-old daughter, Abi, was killed in a road accident in 2014, prompting her to write the book Resilient Grieving: Finding Strength and Embracing Life After a Loss That Changes Everything. 

“I think it is absolutely vital for your psychological health, to be able to experience, demonstrate, and share all emotions. Not just the good ones. Suffering is such a huge part of life. So why are we trying to diminish it?”

In late November Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, penned a personal essay for The New York Times revealing she had suffered a miscarriage in July. While some were quick to label the piece as ‘attention seeking’, Markle’s frank admission paves the way for women to discuss this heart-breaking, taboo topic.

“There’s lots of research which shows that making something meaningful come out of your loss is the central task that we have to attend to in grief,” Hone continues. “Death is a pretty big part of life and I feel like we should be able to wrap our heads around it. It’s not fun, it’s not comfortable, but if we are not allowed to express the fullness of life experience in any media that feels comfortable to us for fear of others’ discomfort, that does concern me.”

Similar to when we winced seeing first-hand the horrific police violence happening in the US both before and during the recent Black Lives Matter protests, I think the reason we are so thrown when someone dares to be vulnerable online is because we want to be comfortable: we don’t want to be forced to bear witness to someone else’s raw pain. But in sharing these moments, Teigen and others like her are initiating conversation, breaking stigmas, and showing women everywhere that no matter what you do, sometimes tragedy strikes.

TURNING A CORNER

Alyssa Limperis is proof of just how much sharing your grief can help to heal and bring people together. When her dad passed away in 2016, the Los Angeles–based comedian made a career out of breaking down the stigma surrounding grief, creating a comedy show, No Bad Days, entirely based on her loss. It was a sell-out hit, and Limperis has since performed stand-up at grief retreats around the country. 

“That show’s my favourite thing I’ve ever done,” she says. 

“It was almost better than normal comedy, because we were talking about something that we all share. It felt very much when I was doing that show that it was a collective experience. We were doing it together and we all left going through something together. It was very cathartic.”

In a Medium article posted a few weeks after Jack’s death, Teigen addressed the conversation around her tribute to her son, writing, “I cannot express how little I care that you hate the photos. How little I care that it’s something you wouldn’t have done. I lived it, I chose to do it, and more than anything, these photos aren’t for anyone but the people who have lived this or are curious enough to wonder what something like this is like. These photos are only for the people who need them. The thoughts of others do not matter to me.”

When someone chooses to share their grief, whether it’s in person, by phone call, or on social media, the only thing we need to do is give our compassion and gratitude for sharing something so unbelievably traumatic for a greater sense of a shared problem. If it’s the latter of the three mediums and that is too much for you to do, the beautiful part is, you are free to keep scrolling.

This article originally appeared in Fashion Quarterly, Issue Summer 2021. 

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