Dealing with Death? Get on Facebook

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Anywhere from 1.8 to 3 million Facebook users will die in 2011, according to separate estimates from the digital legacy sites 1000Memories and Entrustet, likely transforming those posthumous profiles into digital epitaphs.

With Facebook swelling to more than 750 million members as of June, dealing with death online — through both the profile pages of the deceased and dedicated memorial pages — has become standard behavior. Now, it’s almost as commonplace as sending condolences and attending funerals.

“In the advent of growing online populations who are also inevitably aging, it’s fair to say that grieving online is becoming a new and necessary death ritual,” said Kimberly Falconer, a clinical psychologist currently working at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied online grieving.

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A byproduct of broadcasting our lives on social networking sites for nearly a decade, digital mourning isn’t a brand new behavior, but researchers are just now figuring out whether it does any good as a grief management tool.

Falconer assessed the psychological value of online grieving as a means to work through the four tasks of mourning: accepting the reality of the loss, dealing with the pain, readjusting to the environment and reinvesting in life, while forging a new bond.

“Our understanding is that, overall, online grieving facilitates these tasks to a large extent,” Falconer told Discovery News. “At a broad level, the faster communication, more widespread ability to normalize experiences and share emotions, increased access to social support and more durable communities, and the increasing safety and accessibility with which online memorials can be established are clear advantages.”

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Additional research has confirmed the positive role of online grieving.

After the shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007 and Northern Illinois University in 2008, Amanda Vicary, an associate professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University examined whether students and alumni who joined online memorial groups and posted support messages appeared to cope better with the tragedies.

“I believe that Facebook and the Internet generally are making it much easier for people to mourn and deal with their grief,” Vicary said. “People can feel less alone by seeing that others are feeling the same way, or they can continue their bond with a deceased loved one by leaving messages for him or her.”

Although Vicary’s study data didn’t establish long-term positive or negative effects of Facebook mourning and similar activities, a majority of participants self-reported a comforting effect, even if momentary.

“Overall, it’s safe to say that Facebook isn’t hurting people who are grieving, and may very well be helping them,” Vicary told Discovery News.

In fact, online grieving might be even more psychologically soothing than other mourning practices, such as reading an obituary or visiting a gravesite, according to a clinical psychology study from Antioch University, New England, completed in May.

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For her dissertation, “Technology of Grief,” Antioch PhD candidate Jordan C. Fearon surveyed 68 people about their use of Facebook memorial groups and found that 59 percent of this group considered them “more helpful than other than other traditional death rituals.” In addition, 98.5 percent of participants would recommend creating or joining a memorial group to help cope with grief.

Of course, relying on Facebook as your sole shoulder to cry on probably isn’t healthy, either, and Vicary notes that it could be overwhelming for some people to continually confront a recent loss each time they log in to the social networking site.

But when affected by loss and tragedy, people clearly take solace in social networking and its accessible and visible outpouring of consolation.

“Whether a Facebook group or a deceased person’s profile is visited by the whole country or just a few family members and friends, it’s still serving the same purpose — an outlet for people to come together, share their feelings, remember and feel less alone,” Vicary said.

Moreover, Kimberly Falconer at University of Pennsylvania sees the future benefit in facilitating more, rather than less, online mourning. 

“With such a wide variety of online (grieving) options, the question is no longer ‘Is it happening?,’ but rather, ‘Which options are happening better?’,” Falconer said.