Global Mourning: Grief in the Digital Age

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Published : Cosmopolitan Aug 2011

When fashion guru Alexander McQueen died last year, people who had never met him poured out their emotions online.

The day after his death, commemorative messages were posted on Facebook every second, and in a week 80 000 people signed up as his Facebook ‘fans’. ‘RIP,’ they wrote. ‘Genius.’ ‘It’s been five days, I actually miss you as tho I knew you … sleep well.’ As Lisa Miller, author of Heaven (Harper Collins), told Newsweek, this is how we now mourn: ‘Globally. Together. Online.’

When Siphokazi Kwakweni, 27, an assistant director in a government organisation in Pretoria, lost her best friend to an aneurysm in 2009, she and others used the young Facebooker’s page to post details of the funeral and create a Commemorative wall. ‘It felt natural using Facebook this way – she’d posted messages there until the day she died, using my laptop from her hospital bed during her last week,’ says Kwakweni. ‘We still write messages on her wall, particularly on special days … or when something happens in our lives that we want to share. It feels good, as though we’re still talking to her.’

THE REASONS

‘The pull of online grieving is powerful,’ says Durban psychologist Michael Cassidy. People can ‘congregate’ instantly wherever they are, share grief and commemorate the dead in a non-threatening way, unburdening anonymously, if they wish. In a study on how college students used MySpace to handle grief, US psychology professor Diana Nash observed that ‘one of the primary desires that we all seem to have is for someone to listen to us’. Students who expressed grief online felt more listened to and more visible, she found. ‘There are others going through what you went through. It doesn’t take away the pain, but it can lessen it and make you feel less alone.’ Social-networking sites also have advantages for the family of the deceased – they’re a convenient way to inform others of funeral arrangements, and family members can access condolences when it suits them. And tribute walls help keep a loved one ‘alive’ in a communal space. ‘Sometimes people don’t even speak in the past tense,’ notes Cassidy. ‘They say things like, “Anni, you are so beautiful,” instead of “were”.’

THE REALITY

For all this, is the ‘togetherness’ factor in online grieving more imaginary than real? ‘It occurs within a matrix in which younger people, especially, feel they live,’ says Cassidy. ‘But there’s a difference between attending a memorial service in real time, and many arbitrary people putting up postings at different times. Apart from using punctuation marks or emoticons to indicate effect, for example :-((((((((,,,,,,,, for floods of tears, often no real emotion is conveyed online.

Sometimes it seems people’s postings are more to mark their own existence in a “Kilroy was here” sort of way.’ The human face is designed to convey emotion, Cassidy says. ‘To see it reflected in the faces of others is so profound that often words are not necessary. The face has a multitude of muscles; how can that be matched online?’ Our basic human need during grief is to cling together, says Illeana Cocotos, a Jo’burg psychologist. ‘We derive comfort from the physical presence and touch of loved ones. Online messages, however well intended, can never replace that.’ Online mourning blurs the boundary between where humanity ends and virtual reality begins. ‘This has serious implications for our society because it reinforces the move towards minimal human contact, which has become characteristic of the digital age.’ A study on the role of Facebook in the grieving of American students after the shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007 and Northern Illinois University in 2008 showed that their online activities ‘neither helped nor harmed’ their psychological wellbeing. Almost 90% of the grieving students had joined at least one Facebook group centred on the shootings, and most said it made them feel better at first. After two months their depressive symptoms had dropped, and their symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder were down. But the degree to which they took part in online activities had no discernible effect on their ultimate recovery from either condition. The effect of online grieving on family and friends of the deceased is not always positive. ‘Most grievers who read a deluge of online communications eventually feel that it takes something away from the special relationship they had with their loved one,’ says Cassidy.

THE REPERCUSSIONS

Online forums may even prolong the grieving process, Cassidy says, if people see them as a place to revisit constantly. ‘We’re supposed to move away from mourning the actual person to mourning them more abstractly, so people pray and do various rituals to deal with their loss.

I’m not sure that online postings are true symbolisations that facilitate grieving.’ Funerals and real-time rituals give the griever the opportunity to face the reality of death, which may not occur in online forums, adds Cocotos. Activities involved in rituals also enable the griever to act out his or her feelings of loss in public, which ‘provides them with a therapeutic release and acceptance of their emotions by the community. Rituals facilitate the beginning of an appropriate grief journey.

Without them, one can get stuck in the stages of grief.’ The immediacy and informality of online messages may make them more honest, maintains Daniel Miller in Tales From Facebook (Polity Press). ‘There is a genuineness on social-media sites because it’s an instant, emotional reaction.’ But it can also make people insensitive, says Cassidy. ‘Sometimes they get carried away and start posting things about the circumstances – for instance, “I thought his drinking would one day end in a car crash”.’

People can also make deliberately hurtful comments online. Earlier this year 19-year-old photographer Susanne Morrison had this to say on Facebook about the murder of Irish teacher Michaela Harte McAreavey, 27, in Mauritius: ‘Susanne Morrison is sick of hearing about Makeala Hartes [sic] death! Thousands of people die terrible deaths every day … so what makes her so special,’ she posted. ‘In more than 35 years of grief counselling, I can cite only a couple of instances of people communicating mean things to the family of someone who died by sending a letter or writing in the actual guest book,’ says Kenneth Doka, editor of Living With Grief (Taylor & Francis). ‘On the other hand, I’ve talked to a lot of funeral directors who have put up online guest books and say the level of screening required is a real problem.’

Facebook, along with MySpace and LinkedIn, recently adopted formal ‘memorialising policies’ for members who pass away. Once the death has been confirmed by a family member (by providing a link to a death certificate or press obituary), the member’s postings are usually removed, and the page becomes visible only to their signed-up friends, who can continue to post in a cybertribute. In addition, websites such as www.legacy.com employ readers to trawl through the notes commentators post on their guest books to intercept barbed or unkind remarks.

Overall, online grieving seems to have a comforting role to play. When her father died last year, US psychologist Dr Paula Bloom wrote: ‘Facebook has made it much easier to allow others in…. There’s been nothing virtual about this very real support. It takes a village – and I have never in my life been so grateful for mine.’