Mourning online helps some move on

Morgan Day

Editor’s note: Many of the quotes in this story were taken directly from posts on social networking Web sites and were not edited from grammar, spelling and punctuation.

Lauren McCain’s friend Whitney posted a comment on her MySpace site last Monday that read: “Please call me asap. I’m worried about you with all the news I heard this morning.”

“Oh Lauren please call someone,” Whitney wrote the next day. “We are so worried about you. We miss you so much.”

McCain, 20, of Hampton, Va., was one of the 32 Virginia Tech students who were shot to death last Monday.

Now, McCain’s site is full of worried messages sent by family members and friends who were concerned about McCain the day of the shooting. The site also has personal messages to McCain, expressing friendship and kind words once McCain’s fate came to light.

“My sweet niece,” McCain’s Aunt Judy wrote, “…. bright light in our family. We are heartbroken, Lauren, and I don’t think the tears will ever, ever stop. See you again one day, and I’ll take care of your dad for you.”

Social networking Web sites, such as MySpace and Facebook, now act as 21st century grave sites where young people go to remember their deceased friends and share in collective grieving. Friends are able to share their last words, which usually read like long, intimate letters filled with slang, memories and inside jokes.

Last words

The Facebook profile of Alicia Bane, former Kent State student, shows the 23-year-old decked out in Pittsburgh Steelers attire, a Steelers emblem adorning her cheek and blackened fingernails as she slyly presses a bottle to her lips.

This is Bane’s last profile picture. She died of cancer two months ago, yet her Web page is still up, and her friends have not stopped commenting on it.

One friend wrote, “sometimes i think its kinda silly 2 write this even tho u wont be getting it, but maybe i just need 2 say something. i wish we hadnt lost touch, u r a amazing person and i feel blessed that i knew u 4 as long as i did, i only wish we couldve had more time together.”

A set of gold wings and a halo were a “private” Facebook gift to Bane, and her friends refer to her as “angel.”

Jen Altieri, of Wheeling, W.Va., continuously leaves messages for Bane on her Facebook site.

“You told me the day that I came back to school our freshman yr after losing my mother to cancer, that you were so sorry for my loss, that you were always there if I needed to talk, and gave me a hug, and I will never forget that,” Altieri wrote. “I know that you are an angel.”

Altieri, who knew Bane for six years, created a MySpace memorial page for her because she said it’s an easy way to remember a loved one.

“I lost my mom when I was 14,” Altieri said. “And for me, it’s like you can’t see the person or talk to the person, but you can get your message across somehow.

“It was something that everyone who knew her could relate to, and maybe there was something that people wanted to say to her or her family that people weren’t able to say. It’s kind of a peace of mind that everyone’s there for the same reason.”

Families and online sites

Jane Bissler, clinical director at Counseling for Wellness in Kent, said the Internet provides an outlet for people who couldn’t make it to calling hours. Although sending an online message is a more impersonal alternative to face-to-face contact or letter-writing, many people see it as less intrusive if they don’t know the person or the person’s family well.

“Especially for college-aged adults to sit down and write a letter to a family they’ve never met and probably don’t know is not going to be happening,” she said.

Bissler said families don’t have the option of meeting with their loved one’s friends, which can reach to hundreds on online sites. Also, because of distance, parents may not know much about a son or daughter’s college life.

“For the family, there’s a huge benefit (of online sites) to see a part of that child’s life they didn’t know existed,” she said. “Parents get on these sites over and over and over again. It’s like calling hours that never end.”

Clare Stacey, assistant professor of sociology at Kent State, said families often want to move on and don’t want to “manage huge volumes of messages and mail.”

“Even if families attempt to grieve privately, in the age of the Internet, that’s becoming increasingly impossible,” Stacey said. “One would hope families would see why friends need this (Web sites), but I’m sure there are disagreements about that.”

Facebook deletes deceased users’ profiles 30 days after it gains word of someone’s death, according to The Washington Post. MySpace allows profiles of deceased users to stay up indefinitely, unless the person’s family requests the site be shut down.

Changing the way we grieve

Bissler said young adults are turning to the computer for more and more things.

“Every arrangement and social engagement is being done over the Internet or through text-messages, so young people are much more comfortable showing respect over the Internet than they would be in a face-to-face situation.

“For the most part, people feel better when they can share their feelings, even if it’s over a computer terminal.”

Stacey said online grieving can be likened to mass funerals and other forms of collective grieving. She will teach a “Death and Dying” course this fall, but she hasn’t taught it since graduate school, so she said she’ll update the curriculum to add in this new trend in grieving.

She said the United States, compared to other cultures, has a relatively short time frame when it comes to recovering from loss.

“I would argue that now, in general in the U.S., we have really unrealistic expectations about peoples’ ability to recover from grief,” Stacey said. “We kind of want that fast. We have fast food and fast everything else, so we’ve gotta have fast death. And that’s not realistic. That’s not how people recover from death.”

Contact safety reporter Morgan Day at [email protected].