Blog Post

Grieving through Facebook Part Two

As promised, a follow up to my previous blog on my research regarding grief and Facebook (you can read the first part here!)

Results

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

Expressing Grief and Loss

Many friends expressed how lost or sad they felt with their friend gone; “I miss you,” really became a prevelant theme in almost all posts. One user writing, “Miss you Joe... still tryin' to wake up from this 9 month dream...” and another still states, “I miss you and think about you all the time.. I hope you will do it big up in heaven, and don’t worry, we’ll do it big down here for you.”

Memories

Another way in which individuals wrote to the deceased was to say share a memory they had with the deceased prior to their passing and events that recently occurred that brought it up. One friend writes:

so today I had to take Joe to the ER because he was feeling sick and his vitals machine was beeping like crazy and he was so annoyed with it, just like you used to be. So I got up and silenced it for him, and then cried because I learned how to do that because of you. I didnt like being in a hospital because I only ever went to them for you. today I noticed I was wearing your shoes, your sunglasses and your bracelet, and even though those things make me a little sad, it's like Im brining you on my silly day adventures. 

Another post:

Your brother was just here, but he can't sniff out the twizzlers like you!!! But theres no one like you thats for sure!! I love reading all the comments and I think... as many hearts are hurting right now that you're not here, is the amazing number of hearts you touched!! Thats quite an accomplishment in 16 years!!! Thank you for watching over the crew.. they need it... but they're keeping it together!!! I love you big boy!!!

Important Dates

Birthdays, holidays (Christmas, Easter, etc.), other dates of importance to the deceased (would-be graduation, elections, etc.), and the anniversary of their death lead to a spike in posts. For example, one user posted on the deceased’s wall on the popular stoner holiday 4/20, “miss you like crazy. it still doesn't seem real..hope you smoked one for me up there today.” Another example:

"welcome to the jungle, and I'm the lion" it'll be two years tomorrow and you are still thought about and talked about almost everyday. Although your time was cut short, we all are thankful for having you in our lives. You were the one to put a smile on anyone's face when they were having a bad day. I will forever remember that beautiful smile and your silly laugh. Thank you for watching over all of us and keeping us safe. We are lucky to have a great guardian angel like you. ! Please be with your mom and sister tomorrow, I know it'll be a rough day for them but they have the love and support from all of your friends and family behind them. Give them the strength to smile when they think about you and celebrate your life. Love you and miss you Geoffmo ! Always & Forever!

Here we see that the anniversary of the death renews grief for members of the social network, increasing the likelihood that they search for ways to communicate their grief. 

Frustration over Death

In the case of suicide (as well as other sudden or accidental deaths), individuals within the social network expressed both anger with themselves and the deceased now that they were gone, one example being: “where have you gone... i need you in my life.. we all do dude... why did you have to go?” Sometimes the frustration was not direct at the deceased, but at the self:

Days are flying by so quickly, but I still think about you constantly. It might not be healthy, but I do. You really touched my life in ways others wish they could. I'm just so angry with myself for never really expressing how much I really appreciated you. Your number is still saved in my phone and I dial your number sometimes praying that you would pick up. I miss your voice, your humor and most of all your presence. I miss you
Elizabeth.

Discussion/Key Takeaways:

All of these findings show how the continued presence of a profile can act as an outlet for conversation between the deceased and friends in their social network. More specifically, we're able to see from the posts how friends talk through their frustration or feelings of loss, as well as to remember the happy times/fond memories, while also taking the time on important dates to honor those they have lost. 

Conclusions: 

While the content analysis of wall posts cannot definitively say the reason behind why users wrote on the wall of their deceased friend: the content of the messages makes it clear that just by finding a way to continue to communicate with some aspect of the deceased (a profile page they created) that friends are able to cope with the grief they are feeling. 

The results from this research lead us to two key takeaways:

1. Knowing that college students frequently use Facebook and that they will most likely experience the loss of one friend during their time in college (Balk, 2011), its important to continue research into the effectiveness of the maintenance of a friendship with the deceased through the site in the long term. 

2. By acknowledging that the FB profile page of the deceased is a probable location for the bereaved to communicate about their loss, society can help to ensure that these avenues remain open to members of the social network, increasing awareness that the existence of the pages help members cope with the loss of a loved one.

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4 comments

Natalie - thanks so much for sharing this research. 

As Ruby said, I'm much older than your target demographic (college students and younger?) but many of the same principles hold true. Another HASTAC Scholar, Whitney Phillips, has written about the trolls who terrorize these memorial pages - have you seen her posts? If not, I can find them for you... these would all make great companion pieces! 

A few years ago, my young cousin was killed in a really tragic situation. Many of our friends and family live all over the continent, and her memorial page has indeed become a place for sharing ongoing memories, and as Ruby said, seeing that others are still missing her too.

It's actually been a really important component of her young friends' grief process, for them to constantly see that lots of other people miss her, think about her, wonder what she'd be like now. They have often said that the memorial page is the only place where people don't say "isn't it time to move on?" 

The immediate time after a death is often filled with lots of activity - planning for a service, tons of decisions to be made in so many different aspects, the shock of emotion, and then the endless paperwork for the next of kin. But 3 or 4 months later, things have quieted down, and the profound sense of loss can start to feel more palpable. By this time, those who weren't as close to the deceased person have often 'moved on' or aren't as attuned to keep checking in with their loved ones. Many of us have reflected that the ongoing memorial page has been a key part of feeling 'not alone' during that part of the process.  

 

I can imagine it's the same for college students, many of whom are attending school far away from their own hometown, and had friends from different activities, trips, teams and schools. It provides a place for folks to collectively remember their lost friend, and know that it will be 'heard' by others who understand. This seems like it would be true even if they're addressing it to their deceased friend. Has that come up in your own research? 

Before Facebook, people would often make little memorial pages on their Geocities account, or a simple website. Then newspapers started hosting online "Memorial Books" if you ran an obituary in their paper. The comments there were usually directed towards the partner/kids/parents/next of kin, and not towards the deceased themselves. But it would be interesting to compare the two somehow! I wonder how this current experience compares to older forms of ritualized memorials - poetry, songs, letters left at the grave, etc. 

Thanks again for posting, and keep us updated on how you progress!

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I'm much older than your target group, but I've had several friends pass away and leave Facebook profiles behind. (And one had a profile created for him after he died.) It's quite shocking forme when they pop up in lists of friends to invite to a party.

I don't often post on their walls but other friends of mine do, and I wanted to point out another purpose to this, which is to communicate with the surviving friends. As a Buddhist, I don't believe that my friend is sitting in heaven reading Facebook, but one of the most important legacies from any life is the friends they leave behind. The community of friends still derives a lot of benefit from being in touch with each other, and sometimes remembering our lost friends together.

So when some of us visit or write on a late friend's wall, we are actually doing it as much to communicate with the living friends and family. It helps keep us in touch with each other and remind each other about the connection we had. 

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Natalie,
I've enjoyed reading your posts about your research methods and results. It could be the part of a really interesting historical project on public expressions of grief.

What might have been left out of this conversation is that Facebook users were not the first people to popularize large-scale public expressions of grief. As Fiona said, people have already done online memorials. But this practice has much longer history.

For example, after 9/11, a huge memorial created by families and friends of the victims, as well as people who did not personally know any victims, appeared at the World Trade Center site. Many fire stations in New York also were the recipients of memorials for lost firefighters. These memorials ranged from pictures to letters to stuffed animals, clothing, books, sentimental objects, flowers, hair, you name it. I think that a good deal of the memorial has been preserved by the New York Historical Society.

If we interpret public expressions of grief a little more loosely, we could also include roadside memorials for crash victims, AIDS quilts, war and Holocaust memorials(as in statues and sculpture) that list all the names of victims. In another version of this, on each tile in one section of the Union Sq subway station in NYC someone has pasted a label with the name of a 9/11 victim. The labels are not being maintained, and it's interesting to watch them slowly erode overtime, subject to the effects of city grime.

The need to express our grief and share it with others stays the same. The means for doing it changes according to our historical and environmental contexts. The reasons and results of those changes, as your research on Facebook shows, are what's fascinating.

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Thank you for such a lovely post.   It made me go look at my late friend Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's page and Michael O'Rourke had left this on her page:    https://www.facebook.com/pages/Eve-Kosofsky-Sedgwick/113420238668548

 

For Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (1950-2009) who it is hoped will receive this letter by an obscure delivery system.

And for Michael O'Rourke
still alive and always beautiful

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