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Health, Science & Tech

On Social Media, a New Way to Mourn the Loss of Loved Ones

Courtesy photo

Teresa Ferguson was not on Facebook before October 2008. Now she finds it indispensable.

Ferguson uses the site to manage the Facebook page of her daughter Ginny Kleker, who after years of battling a deep depression, ended her life at age 31.

Shortly after her daughter’s death, Ferguson accessed Ginny’s Facebook profile and posted a soul-baring letter describing her daughter's vibrant personality and mental health struggles. She also shared her thoughts as a mother about Ginny's suicide.

“When she left a suicide note, she didn’t ask us to forgive her," Ferguson said. "What she asked for was respect for her decision, and although I work really hard at making sure no one else makes that decision, I do respect her because in some ways it seemed like the most rational thing for her to do at the time. She was suffering so much.”

Since then, Ginny’s profile has become a forum for her friends’ memories, for posting updates to Ginny on their thoughts and lives, as well as a bulletin board for events connected to Ferguson’s newfound activism in suicide prevention. Ferguson said Facebook helped the community to cope with Ginny’s death.

“People who submitted photographs, wrote memorials themselves," Ferguson said. "Often posting videos or songs that she liked that they remembered about her. And it just became a huge source of comfort to everybody.”

Ferguson is by no means alone. As social media sites such as Facebook have grown, they've opened yet another dimension for their users — the grieving process. Facebook profiles of those who have passed away are often maintained by loved ones and have a lasting effect for those controlling the profiles and those who are within the deceased's social network.

Part of the grieving process involves moving through a set of tasks, said Cynthia Magistro, a professor of counseling psychology at Chatham University: Accepting that the loss is real, dealing with the pain, adjusting to life without the beloved and forging an ongoing connection to the memory of that person. Magistro said social networks can help from the beginning when people first turn to the sites for information and to express their anguish.

“People write messages, ‘We miss you so much, we wish you were here,’ people feel the pain while their typing their message, and feeling the pain is an important part of the grief process. It helps people to adjust, to build communities," Magistro said. "And I think the last one is especially important to have an ongoing connection. We build an ongoing connection, and we can do that on social media.”

But there are some who feel that Facebook makes death too informal and believe it’s an inappropriate platform for grief.

“Sometimes I joke that you see an update about someone’s loss in between a Youtube video and the latest LOLcat," said Jed Brubaker, a PhD candidate at the University of California at Irvine. "And then there are some open questions there about what does that mean that death is becoming?”

Brubaker researches death in the context of social network sites. The emergence of sites such as Myspace and Facebook has brought on a new frontier in mourning, Brubaker said, and with that comes new rituals and new ways of receiving somber information. He said one argument for the exploration of death on social media is that it forces a conversation that often goes unsaid.

“When our social media are incorporating this into our casual everyday conversation, then you can’t turn away anymore,” Brubaker said.

Through his research, he has found that a number of factors influence how social media users feel about death and mourning online.

“Part of it has to do with what is your relationship to the deceased, part of it has to do with your relationship with other people who are showing up, and part of it has to do with your own norms and preferences around how you grieve,” he said.

Yet Brubaker said there is a growing acceptance by users of social media that friends in their online network will die and that postings about them will appear from time to time. What people object to, is when Facebook becomes pushy — for example Brubaker said no one likes it when the company unintentionally urges users to reconnect with a deceased friend. He said the problem lies in the programming.

“There’s no button to click that I died. And when would you click it?” asked Brubaker. “So for me that was a fascinating paradox: a site in which we are sharing our lives, but there’s this one thing that we’re precluded from sharing, which is our own death.”

Facebook has 1.2 billion users, and Brubaker is working with the company to help them understand the needs of people who lose someone on the social network.

In the meantime, people like Teresa Ferguson will continue to maintain the profiles of their loved ones. She said it keeps her daughter’s memory alive, and she cannot imagine the grieving process without it.

“It’s almost like leaving flowers at a gravesite," she said. "It’s a way for you to place your own symbol of what she means to you at any given moment.”