Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Grieving Online

The Internet allows people around the world to communicate 24/7, though not always for the better.  We are besieged by texts, tweets, posts and comments from people we know and people we don’t want to know.  There is no expectation of privacy.
How then to account for the use of the internet for expressing something as private and personal as grief?
My high school class started a Yahoo group after 9/11, to share information on memorial service plans for our classmate, Carol Demitz.  The group lives on, and now shares news of other classmates’ deaths, as well as happy news:  births of grandchildren, marriages, plans for social outings.  Its initial purpose may have been fulfilled 9 years ago, but the desire to remain connected remains.
Newspapers routinely allow online readers to post remembrances on the death notices page.  These posts remain online for a set amount of time, and are opportunities for people to pay their respects to the family of the person who has died.  Because they are not interactive, there is no opportunity for those who are grieving to connect with each other.
Facebook has changed all that.  While there is an occasional page devoted to an event that resulted in multiple deaths (9/11, for example), most of these pages are created to memorialize one specific person.  Sometimes a parent creates the page to keep their child’s memory alive, but also to keep in contact with the child’s friends.  Sometimes it’s not a family member, but a friend who does this.  Facebook enables those who post or comment to become a community.  Friends can share stories of their friend, as well as their struggles as they mourn.  Those people – who may not have ever met “irl” (in real life) – are now connected in their shared grief.
These are not formal bereavement groups in the traditional sense, where professional leads a group of mourners.  These sites are rarely “led” by a professional.  They spring up spontaneously and often become inactive as those who mourn begin to heal.
One can argue that Facebook creates artificial community; not real because contact is not face to face.  And certainly the term “friend” has been used loosely, to define someone – possibly a stranger – who knows all about you.  But it has also created a way for those who mourn, but may be separated by distance to connect with those who share their grief for a very special person.
I will post more on this in a few weeks.  A doctoral dissertation is being written on just this topic, and the author has generously offered to share her research.
Have you ever posted on a friend’s Facebook memorial page?

Friday:  The Concert for George

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