Here is a copy of my first repost (edited with new thoughts). It was a piece I wrote in May 2010. The original can be found here.
Two pieces came across my desk about the use of modern technology as a forum for grieving. The first is a blog post entitled “Facebook after Death.” In this piece, the author laments and grieves her son’s death and how having his facebook page still available has given her a different outlet for grieving. She finds comfort in seeing how his friends continue to acknowledge his life even after death.
… In the hours after Jordan died, his younger brother posted a plaintive message on Facebook that was the virtual equivalent of a wail. His post read, “Merrick is lifeless. A piece of him died.” Merrick left our computer open to this page and I found his message by accident. I realized I had to act quickly before word spread virtually — placing calls to the parents of Jordan’s closest friends, so none would learn of his death sitting alone facing a screen. I also realized that Jordan had been right about his generation’s way of communicating. Here in two sentences were the echoes of grief that Merrick had been unable to verbalize directly to his parents. With some keystrokes he could reach out.
So much of the grieving was electronic. Jordan’s college sent out a mass e-mail messages alerting everyone to his death. Two of his friends set up a public R.I.P. page on Facebook. I went there expecting to see it filled with messages honoring Jordan. I was so disappointed and confused to find it empty except for information about the memorial service. Where were Jordan’s friends? Then it hit me. They had gone to the place they always went to speak to him — his profile page. Merrick got me in, and I was met with a flurry of postings.
Their shock and disbelief leapt off the page. For so many of them, Jordan’s death marked the first loss of one of their own. They came to his page to try and make sense of the unfathomable, and also I think to try and be with Jordan. There was no hint of self-consciousness as both male and female friends openly expressed their love for Jordan and their sorrow…
I continue to be comforted every time I visit Jordan’s Facebook page. His friends wish him Happy Birthday, Happy Holidays and update him on their lives. I love that they bring Jordan forward through time with them. And I hope they don’t mind that I drop by to gather a bit of the love they leave for my son.
Some days it is what keeps me going. My biggest fear is that he will be forgotten, and on days when that fear overwhelms me, all I have to do is visit his Facebook page. There plain as day are the many notes of love, longing and good wishes from his friends. As one of his friends put it, “See you in the later.”
The other piece is from Newsweek back in February 2010 called “RIP on Facebook.” The author gives a recap on how facebook is used as a virtual tombstone, allowing people to talk to the deceased without having to go to the gravesite.
Minutes after news broke that the British fashion designer Alexander McQueen was dead, a suicide at age 40, the prayers and condolences started pouring in. More than 80,000 people became “fans” of McQueen on Facebook in the first week. In the first day, messages (to the man or his memory—it’s hard to know which) were being posted every second. Brief and wrenching, the messages are tiny mosaic tiles of grief: “RIP.” “Genius.” “It’s been 5 days, I actually miss you as tho I knew you…sleep well.”
This is how we collectively mourn: Globally. Together. Online.
The McQueen phenomenon recalls the piles of plastic-wrapped flowers laid at the stoop of John F. Kennedy Jr.’s apartment after his death, but Facebook hosts the shrines of less celebrated souls as well. 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.
Yet the desire to connect with each other around death and with the dead themselves is older than the Bible. The ancient Hebrews buried their family members beneath the floors of their houses, the better to keep and care for them. The Christian ideal of “the community of saints,” in which the dead rest peacefully in the churchyard, as much a part of the congregation as those singing in the nave, is something any 19th-century churchgoer would have instinctively understood. In the absence of that literal proximity, Facebook “keeps the person in the communal space—the way a churchyard would,” says Noreen Herzfeld, professor of science and religion at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn.
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?
Grief is a crucible, a physical event—and death, the loss of a physical body. Thomas Lynch, the poet, undertaker, and, as author of The Undertaking, chronicler of American views of death, mused in a phone call that folks today don’t like to think about permanence: they are more concerned with “whether the pipes or the doves or the balloon release will go off as scheduled.” Facebook memorials are fine, even good, he agrees. But then he invokes the Wallace Stevens poem “Not Ideas About the Thing but the Thing Itself,” in which a man, upon waking, hears the first bird of spring—something more than a long-held hope. In “Catch and Release,” the first story in his new collection, Apparition and Late Fictions, Lynch writes about a fishing guide’s efforts to dispose of the ashes of his dead father in the rivers of northern Michigan. The story is dense with -physicality—the heaviness of water, the fatness of fish, the crystalline dryness of cremated bones. It is hard to imagine Facebook muting the anguish of this mortal loss. Facebook is the idea about the thing. Celebration, desolation—that’s the thing itself.
Both pieces extol the power of the internet in our lives. In grief counseling, the first rule is that all people grieve differently. It would be interesting to see if use of technology helps or hinders the grief process. Any takers for such a research endeavor? If anyone has further thoughts or ideas on the subject, please feel free to comment because I am working on a presentation about the use of technology in pastoral care.