How WhatsApp Eased the Pain of Losing My Parents

A forum for young orphans to grieve together thrives on the world’s most popular messaging platform

Photo: NurPhoto/Getty Images

MyMy parents both died in the early 2000s, before my 20th birthday. Becoming an orphan long before anyone else you know is incredibly isolating. People who have not had the experience find it hard to understand you; all too often, they’re frightened by the depth of the loss. And it is difficult to find other people who can relate. I never thought that I’d eventually find them on WhatsApp.

Over the past two months, I have chatted daily with about 60 other people in a WhatsApp group chat for young orphans. For the first time in my life, I have access to people who have shared this defining experience and can understand me at a deeper level than most.

The group was set up by London-based charity worker Katharine Horgan, who started the WhatsApp chat after the creators of Griefcast, a U.K.-based podcast about loss, tweeted a request for resources for young adult orphans last December. Horgan’s idea was to use WhatsApp as the platform for a group chat because of its “ease.”

“I’m familiar with it,” she says. “Most people have it. It was the first idea that popped into my head.” WhatsApp is currently the world’s most popular messaging app, with 1.5 billion users in 180 countries across the globe — even more users than the Messenger app belonging to its parent company, Facebook, which has 1.3 billion.

Posting a screenshot of the WhatsApp profile for the group, named “Young Orphans,” to her Twitter account, Horgan invited people to DM her for an invitation to the chat.

Just two months later, the group has grown into a diverse family of young orphans, with members from the U.K., Europe, the United States, Canada, New Zealand, and beyond. The group grew quickly at first, as the tweets announcing its creation were shared while Christmas loomed, with all its potential to remind orphans of what we have lost. Now, new members trickle in at the rate of one or two per week.

Part of the group’s success is due to the platform itself. WhatsApp, I’ve realized, is the best forum for finding intimacy among strangers because it allows each user to be as anonymous as they want to be. The settings allow as many display name and profile picture changes as the user wants, unlike other platforms like Facebook or Meetup.com.

I’ve noticed that group members who are further away from the deaths of their parents are much more open with their identities, taking on “elder statesperson” roles in the group and encouraging conversations and consoling others who are discovering secondary losses within their tremendous grief. For those in the more emotionally volatile, nightmarish days of new, raw grief, it feels safer to not give away lots of identifying details, and to listen rather than to initiate chats. The fact that they are there, among people who have felt how they feel, is as much as they can take right now.

“Through supporting each other and learning more about other peoples’ experiences, I think we learn to be a little kinder to ourselves, too.”

WhatsApp, like other chat platforms, allows for constant connection, which is crucial for young orphans. This means that even the briefest plea for help, encouragement, or sympathy does not go unnoticed. By contrast, a post in a Facebook group can go unacknowledged for long periods of time or get overrun by comments taking the conversation in various directions. Twitter is far too public. Instagram demands visuals — more than a grieving orphan can manage.

Recently, we’ve talked about being parentless at graduation, how grief impacts the sex drive, and our vivid grief dreams, full of kindness and cruelty. Sometimes, members make tiny requests, the sorts of things we’d ask our parents if they were still alive and available by text. One member recently asked for help in getting her oven to work, and members chimed in with advice. Another mentioned missing her dad’s advice on her résumés when she’s applying for jobs. A third posted pictures of her adorable new bunny — exactly the kind you’d send your mother — to a rapturous reception.

I see myself as one of the group’s elder statespersons because I’ve been through grief and out the other side, whereas other members are still living through it. Still, as January unfolded, the 20th anniversary of my mother’s death weighed on my thoughts more and more. I realized that this had probably been the real motivation behind why I’d wanted to join the group.

The group chat was the only place I could think of sharing this information, safe in the knowledge that the response would be thoughtful, warm, and supportive. However, I didn’t expect that anyone would remember the anniversary. I didn’t know how I would feel.

But members from all over the world checked in to wish me luck, and then ask how my day had been. It was a busy one, and when I finally sat down to think, I felt a shadow of the painful self-loathing that used to consume me. But its power is now limited — by time and by the knowledge that more than 60 people at the other end of a text chain will be ready to tell me that the unkind voice is wrong.

The members in the chat have become a lifeline that’s available 24/7, at the touch of the screen that’s always with us.

“It’s just a bunch of people supporting each other through the most difficult (and sometimes weird and amusing) aspects of being a young adult orphan,” says group member Frances Everard, a lawyer from New Zealand, now based in New York.

“Through supporting each other and learning more about other peoples’ experiences, I think we learn to be a little kinder to ourselves, too.”

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