Using Facebook to Grieve
By: JUSTINE VAN DER LEUN
Contact Dr. URSULA WEIDE for questions about Facebook and Grief
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
“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
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,”
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 some one is grieving, putting your hand
on their shoulder can help, and that is lacking on a social networking site.”
BY: JUSTINE VAN DER LEUN
Using Facebook To Grieve