Blog Post

Grieving through Facebook

Today I'll be giving a presentation at my university regarding my research on Grief Communication and Facebook. I thought I would share here some of the highlights of that study and what I'll be talking about today. This first post will highlight the background of the study, and then spend time discussing the first two themes found in regards to the first research question. 

Abstract:

This research investigates how members of a deceased individual’s social network on the social networking site Facebook (FB) interacted with the FB profile page of the deceased after that individual has passed away. A content analysis of the wall posts (N =  352) of 14 FB profile pages of users who had since passed was conducted to answer this question. Results suggest that, unique to the profile page, there is a tendency to write messages directly towards the deceased as if they will read it, regardless of time that has passed since the user died. Individuals will also post on dates important to the deceased, and those messages will contain a combination of (a) memories, (b) expressions of loss, and (c) frustration over their death.

Rationale/

 

What we know about Grief Communication:

While the common belief is that grieving is a process of letting go, research has shown that we have hold onto those we have lost in a process known as “continuing bonds” (Silverman & Klass, 1996)

What we know about Facebook and Grief:

1.Memorial pages are often created on FB by friends for those who have passed away (Carroll & Landry, 2010)
2.Memorial pages allow anyone to join including those who did not know the deceased (DeGroot, 2009).
3.The profile page is uniquely different than a memorial page in that a. the profile page is self-created by the deceased while they were still alive and b. it is self-contained to those who the deceased allowed friendship ties to.

This study seeks to analyze the posts made towards and about the deceased on their profile following their death. This research is important as we seek to grapple with changing patterns in grief communication in a digital world. To better understand, the following research questions are posed:

RQ1: When writing on the FB profile page of deceased friend, who are users directing the message to?

RQ2: What do users write about when commenting on the FB profile page of a deceased friend?

Method:

 

A qualitative content analysis of the most recent messages left on the FB profile page of the deceased was conducted to understand how FB friends speak about and towards the deceased on the profile page. 6 themes resulted from a close analysis of the posts, and are discussed below.

Total number of posts: 352

Profiles: 14

Average number of posts per profile: 25

Age of deceased:16 to 45, (M = 19)

Cause of death: Varied from suicide, homicide, car accidents, and complications from recent or long term illness

Time passed since death: 1 month to 3+ years

Results:

 

RQ1: When writing on the profile page of deceased friend, who are users directing the message to?

 

 

Continued Conversations with the Deceased

Given that the text being analyzed was the personal profile page of the deceased, it is no surprise that the messages were directed towards the deceased specifically. Indeed, every single primary message on the profile was directed towards the deceased, with only follow up comments to wall posts involving a conversation between members of the social network. From the content of the posts, it is clear that many of those who write on the page do so in a way that treats the wall post as a conversation with the deceased, rather than about them. For example, one user writes:

thinking about youuuuu, again. and when i come home for christmas i am coming to see you no matter what! even if there's a foot of snow, i will be there. (: andddd.. i'll leave you with this. yesterday, was that youuu, looked just like you, strange thangs my imagination might do, take a breath, reflect on what we been through, or am i just goin' crazy cause I miss you.. miss you, kswiss.

Here the friend alludes to “coming to see” the deceased over Christmas, which is a reference to visiting their grave when they return home. For someone who didn’t necessarily know that the friend has passed away, it would be hard at first to determine whether or not this comment was written towards someone who was deceased. Here, in another example, the user writes about calling the deceased’s phone not long after they passed away, hoping that they might answer, “I just called you and it actually rang as if your phone was on. It usually goes straight to voicemail...I actually thought you were going to pick up. I miss you so much its unbelievable. You were so perfect and everyone knew it. Ill see you soon.” This post, much like the one above, illustrates that the FB profile page becomes an outlet, much like a cellphone that belonged to the deceased, to communicate with the deceased and maintain that bond even though they can’t respond.

Acknowledging the Social Network

Some messages involved a direct reference to/for other members of the social network such as close friends and family, but in every instance were a part of a larger message directed towards the deceased. For example, one poster writes:

hey mama, ive been avoiding this wall, because seeing your face makes it harder not to cry than drafting text messages to your phone, but i missed knowing other people love you so much they have to talk to you too. I can't handle much when i miss you like this. i don't remember if i told you, and i don't wanna look back cuz i know how red my eyes will be in the am tomorrow if i do, but at work, one of my babies(3yrs) asked about my bracelet first day back after break, and i told her it was for you.

Here, the message is directed towards the deceased, acknowledges the difficulty of going to the wall of the profile, but admits that knowing that other individuals “love her and talk to her too” (e.g. other wall posts towards the deceased) helps her cope with the loss. In another, instance, the user commenting had not known that the deceased had passed at first, and only through reading the other posts by friends and family did she figure it out:

Hey Corinne, I was just browsing through facebook and stumbled on your profile. I instantly wanted to send you a message to catch up, until I looked at all of the loving messages left by your friends and family and realized you are no longer with us. It pains me to think that someone with so much love and sunshine to offer to the world had to leave so soon, you were such a beautiful person. Although I only knew you for a short period of time, I'll always remember that summer. I hope wherever you are, you are still smiling and radiant.

In this post, the FB friend writes towards the deceased, but acknowledges that other posts made on the page by friends and family point to how loved she was, and how important she had been in their lives. This points to the idea that regardless of how close an individual is to the deceased, by being a part of the social network and seeing posts on the profile page, it has an impact on them. One final user writes on the page of another deceased friend that:

Everytime I go threw my entire friends list, which isn't very often, I see ur profile and I always have to click on it. I usually just look so see what new posts have been added. Even though I didn't know u very well, it still makes me sad to see how many people still write on here and to think u probably didn't realize how many people loved and would miss u.

This case, like the one prior, points to the ritual of wall posts written towards the deceased, reminders to members of the social network that others care about, and miss them. 

Discussion/Key Takeaways

 

Unlike memorial pages created for the deceased, the profile page becomes a specific location for users to write to the deceased much like picking up a phone and calling them or texting them would have been a way to communicate when they were still alive. Indeed, the comparison of a specific phone number attached the deceased and a FB profile page points to the functionality of the FB profile: it is something that belonged to the deceased that was a way in which others could contact them whenever they needed to talk. While numbers are redistributed post-death, the profile page remains the property of the deceased, and an outlet for individuals to go and express their thoughts and feelings to their friend as if there is the possibility for response. 

 

Look for another post in the next few days where I'll discuss the results regarding RQ2, and go more in depth in the discussion and conclusions that I've drawn from this project. 

 

Thanks!

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3 comments

Thanks for posting this Natalie. And I'm looking forward to the next one. A friend of mine committed suicide a couple of weeks ago, and as far as I know he wasn't on FB. Some other friends created a memorial blog for him, which seems to be the sort of outlet you're describing. Although it's more for the family and friends, and not so directed at the deceased. 

This is a really important use of FB and social media--and wow! So exciting that you've begun doing research on it. I'm starting a Master's program in counseling in the fall, and this just makes me even more excited to start!! I may be back in touch about your work and findings. Very very good. Thanks again.

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Hi Natalie - thanks for sharing your interesting research on grieving and Facebook! It made me think of a couple of things: when is grieving a personal process, and when is it not? what happens when grieving is tied to a collectivity on a social network like Facebook? One of the things I find fascinating in the archivization of memory on a social network is the crowdsourcing of memories and anecdotes related to the deceased, and even the creation of new memories as well (also, making the unspeakability of lost memories visible and shared)...

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Thanks Nancy and Viola for the feedback! 

Viola; I think you are spot on in asking the question about how we determine whether grief is a personal process or public- as i mentioned, this was strictly the content analysis portion of the results, I also completed 43 interviews with college students about their experiences, and many had differing views about whether grief should be private or public. I believe this is a larger cultural question and also relates to increased experience with grief. There's an overwhelming perception it should be private, but as you experience it you realize how helpful it is to connect with others.

 

 

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