The break in traditional mourning habits, where young people grieve online rather than at the graveside, is a phenomenon that can lead to trauma for the mourner if the posthumous digital profile is taken down, according to a counselling psychologist, Dr Elaine Kasket.
Having conducted extensive research on death in the digital age, Dr Kasket said Facebook was effectively “the world’s largest cemetery”, warehousing “thousands and thousands” of profiles of the dead and many of these have become “major sites” where mourners go to continue to post messages to the deceased.
“When people who were active on Facebook die, they leave behind a digital representation, including conversations with friends and photographs that is extraordinarily vivid, a much more vivid experience then visiting the cemetery which does not have the same resonance,” said Dr Kasket.
“It’s an absolutely massive change in how people interact with memory and the deceased.”
In fact, young people’s reliance on Facebook as a “conduit to connect with a community of mourners” was often such that when a family took a decision to have a posthumous profile removed, it could lead to considerable psychological and emotional trauma for friends who wished to maintain a continuing bond, said Dr Kasket.
Based on her own research, Dr Kasket does not believe families should have the final say in removing the profile of a deceased relative, as they could simply chose not to visit the site.
“A Facebook site is co-constructed between you and a community of friends — when a family member successfully petitions to remove a deceased individual’s profile, they can then be said to be infringing on the rights of other mourners,” said Dr Kasket.
This included constitutional rights of freedom of expression and legal rights such as copyright, she added.
The lecturer at Regent’s University in London said there were “no sign of additional pathological problems” in those who use Facebook to grieve.
However, she said bereavement counsellors needed to be aware of the role social networking sites now played in the grieving process.
Bereavement therapist Bríd Carroll, chairwoman of the Irish Childhood Bereavement Network, said some of the young people coming to her were “going onto Facebook straight away, in the aftermath of tragedies” and often took comfort from the messages of support from friends.
But, she warned, because there is no emotional regulation, “you could actually create a grief monster, fuelled by people adding and adding to a profile”.
She said the most important support for a child in the aftermath of a death was strong family support, and not “a script of silence”.
Both Ms Carroll and Dr Kasket will speak tomorrow at the first Irish Childhood Bereavement Network conference in Dublin Castle, which starts at 9.30am.
- For more details go to childhoodbereavement.ie