My mother, at 52, was pretty late in catching on to the whole Facebook thing. When she finally signed up a few months ago, she received a friend request from a high school classmate she hadn't talked to in 30 years. He had read her brother's obituary in the local paper and wanted to give his condolences. It was through this overture on Facebook that this man, who had once been a close family friend, came to learn that my mom's parents had also recently passed away. He responded by explaining how he felt when his mother died and how he had struggled to recover from the loss. "I was so glad we got reconnected," my mom said. "It brought me back to a place that was really happy and comfortable for me."
Other childhood friends she hadn't seen in decades contacted her online to share memories and kind words. "It made me realize how well they knew my family," she said. "In a strange way, it made me feel more connected to the people I'd lost." And, she adds, "if it weren't for Facebook, they never would have found me."
While social networking has brought together long-lost friends and rekindled many an old flame, Facebook has evolved to fill yet another role an outlet for grieving. People the world over can post messages, photos and videos, and specialized sites offer interactive forums in which the bereft can chat with therapists and with one another. Calmly and quietly, the Web has put grievers in touch with all sorts of people who can help support them through the pain.
For thousands of years, death has been acknowledged by rituals and community grieving. But with modernization, as families started splitting up and relocating around the world, society has become more individualized, and many of the rites and rituals have been lost along with a sense of togetherness, says Jeffrey Alexander, director of Yale's Center for Cultural Sociology. "Through technology," he says, "we've constructed this community that can move with us wherever we are."
Dr. Heidi Horsley, an adjunct professor at the Columbia University School of Social Work, started the nonprofit Open to Hope and The Grief Blog to connect those who have experienced loss and to provide expert as well as peer-to-peer resources to help with the grieving process. The Open to Hope Foundation recently expanded its online channels to include Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. "People initially come to blog on the site as strangers, and they start to get to know each other," she says. "They form strong friendships based on their experiences and become part of a virtual Internet family."
Horsley and other experts think that sites like Facebook are helping people become more open about grieving. Kids who publicize their lives online are not afraid to show vulnerability and share their feelings. "The younger generation is setting the stage for a new model of grieving," says Horsley.
Facebook already hosts thousands of memorialized accounts of deceased users so their friends and family can continue to post photos and comments. Grieving members also use their own profiles as an outlet not only to announce deaths and funeral arrangements, but to keep talking about how much they miss the people who have passed away. "We used to believe that closure is what we needed to move on," says Horsley. But as her colleague Dr. Robert A. Neimeyer stresses, "Closure is for bank accounts, not for love accounts."
Facebook helped my mom get through the holidays this year. She needed support from everyone who knew and loved the family members she'd lost in rapid succession. She told me that it's easier for her to open up and express her grief in a Facebook message and that many of these messages led to phone calls and even in-person meetings. Nothing will take away the sadness of losing her parents and brother, but speaking to friends and connecting with others who are grieving is helping my mom realize she isn't alone.