Using Facebook to Grieve

                                  Using Facebook to Grieve

                                                                            By: JUSTINE VAN DER LEUN

These days, Facebook is intertwined with every aspect of life — even death. A class mate updates her status, saying that her father has lost his battle with illness. A relative informs his social network of his wife’s passing. These kinds of messages pop up inbetween friends’ photos of themselves guzzling beer or an acquaintance’s promotional posts about her new book.

Why do people feel the need to express grief or loss on Facebook, a social networking website with nearly 500 million users that straddles the line between public and private?

“Using Facebook can be a coping skill,” says Dr. Ursula Weide, a grief, death and bereavement specialist. While the people in our everyday lives — colleagues, close friends, relatives — know of a death almost immediately, acquaintances and distant friends may not have gotten the news. By posting a notice of the loss, a person is able to inform and reach out to a wider circle for support.

Facebook memorial pages, which are often open groups that anyone can join, have become popular because they allow people to impart practical information like funeral locations and act as a virtual space in which loved ones can post tributes.

A deceased person’s personal page can also act as a memorial. Facebook allows immediate family members to memorialize an account by filling out a form. The company then deletes much of the late user’s personal information but allows friends to post on the deceased’s wall for perpetuity.

“It helps people to continue to communicate,” says Weide, who compares posting to writing in a journal, sending an e-mail to a dead loved one or setting up a memorial website. “These keep the person alive,” Weide says.

A Facebook page can also offer solace to those reading the tributes, especially parents or partners of the deceased. “Messages that say, ‘We miss you; we wish you were here,’ or funny memories can be comforting for the surviving parents [of a deceased child],” says Weide. “They get a sense that their child’s life was not for nothing and has left an impact on other individuals.”

Of course, opening oneself upon Facebook has its downsides, too. “Once you post something and it’s out there, and who knows who will get their hands on it?” says Dr. Neil I. Bernstein, author of “How to Keep Your Teenager Out of Trouble and What to Do If You Can’t.” “The more people know about something, the higher the probability is of something going amuck.”

Often, people who hardly knew the deceased begin to scrawl on his memorial age or post tributes that inaccurately reflect the nature of their relationship — perhaps implying that they were close when they merely passed each other in the hall. This is more common when a death is connected to a newsworthy event, like a school shooting or a sudden accidental death.

“There’s a certain sensationalism in saying, ‘I’m connected to this unusual event,’” says Weide, who witnessed such sensationalist excitement when working with survivors of the Virginia Tech massacre. This kind of “rubbernecking response,” as Weide calls it, can happen on Facebook, too.

Often more painful for a grieving person is an influx of inappropriate but well-meaning messages. “A patient told me she was so sick of seeing posts that said, ‘You are so strong,’” says Weide.

While Weide says there is “no prescription as to how to respond,” she cautions against making comparisons (such as “I know how you feel because I got a divorce”), making assumptions of what the survivor may need or giving unsolicited advice.

Traumatic grief, which people experience when they lose a child or a spouse, for example, is different from sadness, which can come with the loss of a friend or a grandparent. People dealing with traumatic grief usually appreciate a note telling them that you will check in on them periodically to see if you can do anything for them and that you won’t be offended if they don’t respond.

“Because Facebook postings are so public, I would recommend sending offers of support by e-mail,” says Weide. Memories and shows of appreciation for the deceased are more appropriate for a Facebook wall.

Still, for all of Facebook’s benefits, it doesn’t offer a substitute for a deeper level of human connection. “So much of communication is nonverbal — how people look, body posture, expressions, eye contact, touch,” says Dr. Lauren D. LaPorta, chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center and author of “The United Stressed of America.” “If someone is grieving, putting your hand on their shoulder can help, and that is lacking on a social networking site.”