March 21, 2012

Virtual Grief – Internet’s Role In Grief

Two years ago NEWSWEEK’s religion editor, Lisa Miller, wrote a piece on virtual grief that examined the impact and limitations of online bereavement, specifically on Facebook. Today, more than ever, we mourn in status updates and tweets, with messages such as “RIP Michael Jackson” “Can’t believe we lost Whitney Houston. #DearWhitney.” This is how we collectively mourn: Globally. Together. Online.

One teenager started a tribute page for her murdered best friend: members are invited to write the dead girl’s favorite song lyric—”Keep -Breathing”—on their wrist, take a picture, and post it. In October, Facebook changed its policy regarding the pages of members who have passed away. Responding in part to urging by people at Virginia Tech who wanted after the 2007 shooting there to continue to commune with their lost friends on Facebook, the company now allows a person’s page to remain active in perpetuity. (Family members may request that a loved one’s page be taken down.) “When someone leaves us, they don’t leave our memories or our social network,” the new policy says.

One might imagine such virtual mourning is shallow, but it’s not. Here is a real gathering place, where friends can grieve together—and where the deceased continues, in some sense, to exist. “You’re creating something like a tombstone, but people can visit that tombstone anytime, anyplace, as long as they have Internet access,” says Brian McLaren, a leader in the emerging church movement and author of A New Kind of Christianity. ”That seems to me to be a great gain.” We live in a disjointed time. Many of us reside far from our families and have grown indifferent to the habits of organized religion. More of us—16 percent—declare ourselves “unaffiliated” with any religious denomination. Half of Americans will choose cremation over burial, and if we are buried, it will often be in a huge cemetery, among strangers, far from any place we would call home.

All of which raises tantalizing questions: the average Facebook user has aged to 33 years old. In two generations, will the pages of the dead outnumber the living? Will our unchurched children be content to memorialize us with a quip on a “wall”? Something is gained, but what is lost in this evolution from corporeal grief (the rending of garments) to grief tagged with a virtual rose?

Diane Nash, a college professor who teaches courses on death and bereavement, opined in the Christian Science Monitor about why young people find it comforting to share their grief with others online:

If you search for “In Memory of…” on Facebook more than 100,000 results pop up. Following Michael Jackson’s death, more than 150,000 people commented on his Facebook wall. The Virginia Tech tragedy pulled millions of young people to the site. I have taught bereavement courses for 10 years and recently one of my students shared that he could not talk to his parents about his friend who died in an auto accident because they would cry or immediately change the subject. But he could visit the world’s largest social media website any time of day or night to talk about how much he misses his friend and how helpless he feels.

Facebook changed their policy regarding profiles of deceased persons in 2009, now allowing them to remain in place indefinitely. TIME also ran a piece that talks about what happens to a deceased person’s online profiles, and also how those profiles can be a source of comfort for grieving parents:

Before her 21-year-old daughter died in a sledding accident in early 2007, Pam Weiss had never logged on to Facebook. Back then, social-networking sites were used almost exclusively by the young. But she knew her daughter Amy Woolington, a UCLA student, had an account, so in her grief Weiss turned to Facebook to look for photos. She found what she was looking for and more. She was soon communicating with her daughter’s many friends, sharing memories and even piecing together, through posts her daughter had written, a blueprint of things she had hoped to do. “It makes me feel good that Amy had a positive effect on so many people, and I wouldn’t have had a clue if it hadn’t been for Facebook,” says Weiss.