Facebook one outlet for friends of deceased students

Raquel Christie

COLLEGE PARK, Md. (U-WIRE) – Jessica Molitor last talked to her best friend, Sean Spendley, in October 2005, two weeks before he died. He wanted to catch up, and before hanging up, he promised to call her again soon – a promise his sudden, still-unexplained death kept him from fulfilling.

Now it’s Molitor, a senior communications major at the University of Maryland, who’s doing the calling. She’ll vent to family, she’ll vent to friends. But it’s Spendley’s Facebook wall that hears her out on things only she and Spendley would understand: How she feels when she hears Grateful Dead’s “Touch of Grey,” a song she first heard with him; or how she wishes they could drink boxed wine together again, like they did on her 21st birthday.

In this way, Facebook profiles, along with MySpace pages and online journals, have become 21st century grave sites of the wired generation – places where teens and twentysomethings ponder the early passing of their peers with bursts of online slang, pop song lyrics and personal memories.

“It’s more physical and visual … and that type of outlet is more satisfying,” Molitor said. “I could keep a journal, but … because it’s something that was once his, it makes it more fulfilling.”

Online grieving offers benefits traditional methods don’t, said Linda Goldman, a grief therapist and author of “Life and Loss: A Guide to Help Grieving Children.” It’s free, it’s cathartic and it brings mourners together.

“It’s a busy, hurried world, and people want you to go on with your grief,” Goldman said. “The greatest grief resolution technique to give another person is to allow them to tell them their full story without judgment. And that’s what the Internet does.”

Most of the deaths are tragic: car accidents, brain hemorrhages, drug overdose, murder, war casualties. When funerals are too far away, when friends are tired of listening, or when familiar songs pop up on iTunes at 3 a.m., people gather on these frozen stamps of short-lived lives to make sense of loss.

Spendley’s profile, for one, is the way it was a year and a half ago.

Favorite music? Jam band Phish. Kurt Vonnegut’s “Breakfast of Champions,” a popular, spiky critique of American culture, is among his top reads. His favorite movie, cult classic “The Big Lebowski,” is a favorite of more than 500 of his classmates on the popular networking site.

The Internet is merely the newest in a series of culturally defined grieving methods, said Jo Paoletti, an associate professor for American studies and a specialist in cyberculture.

“Think of grief as a river: It’s a channel. And human beings have emotions and they always find some kind of channel,” Paoletti said. “People used to have picnics, take their lunches to graveyards. We don’t do that anymore. A lot of people don’t get even get buried in the usual sense anymore. So where are you? Where do people visit you? There’s this impulse that’s human and it will find a way. And this is just another way and it makes a lot of sense.”

Tim Kern, a senior American studies major who died in a jet-ski accident last summer, is another university student whose Facebook profile is up and still visited. The profile of David Ellis, who died last year in a fire at his Knox Road apartment, though mostly empty, is still online.

Sophomore Nicole Schiffman, the victim of a murder-suicide last week, has her wall adorned with loving messages from her Phi Sigma Sigma sisters and classmates. The profile of senior Wesley Hill, who died in early February after being struck by a car, is also up.

Sophomore English major Nakita Dolet worked with Hill in the Arts and Humanities department, but didn’t know him long. She goes on Facebook, where people who knew Hill to varying degrees join her in venting what perhaps no one else will understand.

“There were just things I wish I would have told him before he’d passed and I didn’t get a chance to, and it was just a way to get it out,” Dolet said.

Online mourning poses tough questions to online networking systems, most of which are so new they haven’t faced much death. MySpace, started in 2004, allows profiles of deceased users to stay up indefinitely, unless the family requests their removal.

“We often hear from families that a user’s profile is a way for friends to celebrate the person’s life, giving friends a positive outlet to connect with one another and find comfort during the grieving process,” a MySpace statement reads.

Facebook, which started as a network for college students, deletes deceased users’ profiles 30 days after it gains word of their death.

Goldman, the grief therapist, said Facebook’s indiscriminate deletion policy is bothersome because it can cut short the grieving process.

“I think it would be really disappointing on my behalf if one day I wanted to say something and [Spendley’s profile] was no longer there,” Molitor said. “I’d be kind of surprised and disappointed that I couldn’t relieve my feelings.”

Goldman suggested Facebook and MySpace inform the public of user deaths to allow for mourning. That’s what San Francisco’s Michael Patterson does with MyDeathSpace. Not affiliated with MySpace, the site links to profiles of more than 1,200 dead users and allows submissions of death notices.

He keeps the site going not so much for grief, but to remind us that when we are young, we can forget our mortality.

“Most of these deaths are easily preventable,” Patterson said. “I’d hope that people view the site and take something away from it. Hopefully they’ll learn something – that they’re not invincible.”