How teenagers mourn in the digital age

THERE was a time when the rituals of death were clear-cut: The deceased was laid to rest, loved ones mourned, and the hope was that the hurt would heal with the passage of time.

How teenagers mourn in the digital age

Photographs, occasional letters, memories, and a headstone were the legacy left behind.

Not so in 2014. Death in the digital age has opened up a whole new world where outpourings of grief are more common online than at the graveside, and where the desire to continue to ‘connect’ with the deceased is facilitated by social networking sites such as Facebook, where millions continue to post photographs and messages to the digital profile of the deceased.

Examples of this activity are rampant. Take, for instance, the Facebook page for Cork woman Tina Greaney who died in 2007, aged 26, of a cocaine overdose. Family and friends regularly post messages to their beloved — to wish her goodnight or good morning, sometimes sending their love, and, poignantly, sending annual happy birthday or Happy Christmas wishes.

Despite the passage of time, Tina’s nearest and dearest choose to continue to interact with Tina’s digital self.

But what is behind this drive to mourn online and how healthy is it, emotionally and psychologically, to grieve in this untraditional way?

Elaine Kasket, a counselling psychologist and lecturer at Regent’s University in London, has been researching this technologically mediated mourning. Having interviewed young people, she believes Facebook provides a legitimate outlet for dealing with grief. In a paper published in law and technology journal Script-ed last year, Ms Kasket gave examples of what Facebook meant to some of those young people dealing with loss:

n“You can think thoughts in your head, and think ‘Oh, I’m hoping he can hear me’, but when you write something in Facebook, it’s a more tangible way to communicate... I can, sitting in my room, just click over that page, look at his face, remember. It’s so easy and accessible, there’s still that piece of him that’s somehow, in a strange way, immortal.” (Ruby)

nAnother young person, called Claire, said: “I would be close to inconsolable [if the profile were deleted]. Having something that may seem so small to some people is everything to me. [His profile] is the one last thread of him that I have. If we lost it, it would be like losing him all over again. There are just certain things that rip the wounds open.”

The young people’s comments illustrate the value they place on continued, albeit one-sided, communication with the dead in dealing with personal grief. Dr Kasket believes this continuing bond — at odds with the traditional Freudian theory that the healthy resolution of grief involves breaking bonds and moving on — can be “normal, adaptive and comforting”.

As she points out, Facebook is essentially a friends-accessible warehouse of personal and interpersonal data from the deceased individual’s life, and it is the “potential vibrancy of this historical record of relationships and dialogues between friends, possibly spanning many years” that is perhaps key to why a Facebook profile makes the deceased so vivid to those left behind. And it is this vividness that appeals to the mourner who is at pains to preserve the memory of a loved one lost.

Dr Kasket does not view this online interaction as problematic from the point of view of wishing to maintain a continuing bond. She says online mourning is not a risk factor for pathological mourning — where the mourner falls into a bereavement-related depression or is delusional in believing that the deceased is still alive or where functionality is impaired. It’s more a natural expression of grief in a digital age.

Where it does become problematic, however, is when a family, for their own reasons, decide to have a profile removed. Dr Kasket questions this action, arguing that because the Facebook profile is “co-constructed” — essentially a product of exchanges between friends — then it’s not within any individual’s remit, bar the deceased, to have it removed. “I personally don’t agree that families should have the ultimate say,” says Dr Kasket. “It’s about a person’s right to determine what they want their digital legacy to be. Giving anyone control over that is like controlling the eulogy at a funeral.”

Equally, removing a profile closes a conduit to connect with a community of mourners, she says, which can be very isolating, particularly for those at a geographical remove.

Not everyone is so unequivocal about the benefits of online grieving. Bereavement therapist Bríd Carroll, chairwoman of the Irish Childhood Bereavement Network, says that while it’s a natural reaction for some teens she sees to go online in the immediate aftermath of tragedy, it’s often more a short-term thing, where they take comfort from messages of support.

“I think you have to look at it with caution too,” said Ms Carroll. “You will always have someone throwing up derogatory comments. People feel they can be anonymous on one level and on another level, they post their most intimate thoughts. My concern is that there is no emotional regulation. You could actually create a grief monster.”

Ms Carroll says it’s about “finding a safe space to tell what the loss means to you” and that there were “a lot of benefits to the hands-on approach”.

“We’d see as so, so important, empowering parents to help their kids deal with loss,” she says. “We would look at strengthening the natural support networks, such as family and schools. What you don’t want is a script of silence, the ‘we don’t talk about this’ approach where people suffer in silence for years.”

So what does she think of youngsters continuing to post online to the profile of a deceased loved one?

“If it’s going on over a long period, you’d be asking if there’s a grief there that has not been tangibly processed,” she says.

Ms Carroll and Dr Kasket are among the keynote speakers at the first Irish Childhood Bereavement Conference. which starts Dublin Castle tomorrow at 9.30am. 

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