In a seminal work in the field of psychology, Elizabeth Kluber-Ross brought order to a chaotic and oftentimes taboo life experience—grief. In her five stages of dying, death, and grief, she normalized and qualified a sequence of emotions that established a new branch of study on the topic of death. In the past decade, as our personal lives have become deeply fleshed-out online, the once taboo conversations of dying and grieving have taken their place among cat photos and descriptions of brunch. Since the Virginia Tech shootings, Facebook and other networking sites have had to deal with the expectations that our digital personas (or that of our loved ones) should live eternally online. It is estimated that by the year 2065, the dead on Facebook will outnumber the living. This digital graveyard has emotional and legal ramifications, but most importantly it is changing our conversations on death, dying, and grieving and allowing health professionals a new look into grieving practices online.
Grieving online can especially help suicide survivors—those close family and friends of a suicide victim. Once taboo and rarely spoken of, suicide death bereavement groups now provide parents and siblings a community where they can grieve their loved ones without perceived shame. When Tom Loconti, a Brooklyn-based artist also known as “Plainwhite Tom,” committed suicide in 2014, his Facebook page became an immediate memorial. The social relationships he fostered and his digital persona, left in the hands of friends and family, established an instant support group for those left behind, one in which his mother “had such a base of support…[it] was so comforting and so great.” This community-building, albeit a non-physical one, allows the mourner to grieve with the memory and community of a loved one.
However, such public forums can also have a negative impact. Julie Buntin felt forced to relive her friend’s descent into substance abuse, depression, and eventual overdose by Facebook’s messaging program. Even though her friend had passed, the constant exposure to pictures and words (said and unsaid) prevented Buntin’s emotional wounds from healing. “The Internet has complicated the question of where to store my loss,” she states, illuminating the problems with a permanent presence of the digital persona after death.
One day soon, we will all need to add our online personas to our wills, detailing who will have access to our carefully curtailed digital selves or our privately kept emails. The greatest problems, however, will be reflected in how our digital landscape will affect those who are left behind. For many, this will be a positive mode of grieving, allowing for the safekeeping of memories and a public platform from which to mourn our dead. For some, this will be a permanent reminder that a person is no longer with us. What is indisputable is that our ways of approaching death and grief can no longer be completely enclosed and private and that new modes of grieving the dead, both in real life and online, will affect how we provide grief care.
Myriam Bostwick is the Director of Communications and New Media of a large community organization in New York City. She is currently pursuing a Masters of Public Health in Community Health Education and is most interested in the relationship between media, communications, and public health issues. She lives in Queens, NY, with her husband, Brian, and two pets, Lily and Charlie. Follow Myriam on Twitter at @myriambostwick.