Creating Community in Times of Grief: Facebook in Action
In my last post I talked about some of the web-based tools that can provide a platform for people to share their grief. Now I would like to explore a bit when a social worker or a some other type of therapist might consider suggesting these tools to clients. Clearly, using an online platform only makes sense if someone is online and generally comfortable in these environments. But more and more this is the case. A recent Pew study of American Internet use found that large numbers of people are online from levels of 93% for teens and young adults to 38% among adults age 65 and over.
A Simple Truth
Let’s start with the simple assumption that human interaction is helpful for people who are grieving, especially when it’s interaction that provides support and opportunities to remember the deceased. While our culture provides face-to-face opportunities for this human interaction, it tends to drop off quickly once the formal mourning rituals are complete. And people may have limited access to these real-world rituals because of distance, or relationship to the family of the deceased. Having alternate ways of sharing grief becomes especially important if people have limited access to the real-world rituals, but in a culture that provides little time and space for grieving, these ways can be helpful to many people.
Of course, the strength of Web 2.0 tools is that they bring the means for creativity, collaboration, and connectivity to everyone on the Internet. So it only follows that Web 2.0 could be helpful to anyone who is grieving and is comfortable online. As was noted in Grieving in Virtual Spaces, there are range of online platforms that could be helpful to those who are grieving. However, the increased popularity of social networking sites suggests that these are the best places to begin. The Pew Internet Survey found that among those who were online 73% percent of teens and 47% of adults were using social networking sites like Facebook.
Facebook pages can be created as an individual profiles, where people add someone as a friend; as a community page where someone joins the page by choosing to “like” it; or as a group, where someone chooses to join it. These last two situations lend themselves well to creating memorial sites.
Creating a meaningful memorial Facebook site could be a remarkable healing project. In addition to providing a chance to pull together photos, videos, and music, there is the chance to share memories, poetry or notes with other members of the community. Moreover, similar to what can happen at a wake, people can learn about all the sides of who someone was through the memories and thoughts that others share. Over time, a sense of community can develop that can provide some ongoing mutual support as people comment on each other’s contributions.
One advantage of using a community Facebook page as a memorial site is that it is an enduring place for people to go over time. At a time when mainstream U.S. culture is ready to take the focus off of grieving after the funeral, an enduring virtual page acknowledges that grief continues.
As noted above, sometimes the page doesn’t start as a memorial site but is transformed into one after it’s creator dies. I have a friend who periodically will go to her deceased child’s Facebook page and leave the child notes. It reminds me of the experience I had of writing letters to my dad after he died, or the letters I have asked my clients to write to the people they have lost, except that these are shorter notes, probably closer to the snippets of conversation that can continue in our heads with someone who has died. Of course the other big difference is that this is public within the community of people who follow her child’s page. In this way, it is a very different ritual of grieving that has the advantage of letting a community know that grief continues (something our culture forgets) and that relationships beyond death in the hearts of those who cared for the deceased. It also allows a community the information they might need that would encourage them to reach out to a member who might be struggling. In this way, this tool creates new options for grieving–options that didn’t exist before Web 2.0.
One important factor to consider when evaluating a venue is who will have control over the healing environment. For example, if the Facebook page started as an individual’s personal page, then it’s possible that at some point in the future the family might choose to remove the page–and, of course, the administrators of a community page or a group might choose to do the same, although at least there are more options to share the administrative roles for these pages with a group of people. Clearly if something is really important to someone they should select a virtual space that ensures they will have access–either because they have the direct control themselves, or because they know that others share their goals. For this reason, a site that is set up to memorialize someone has the definitive advantage of a clarity of purpose that makes it more likely it will be around for a while.