Sharing Grief on Facebook

The movie tribute Michael Jackson’s This Is It made roughly $103.9 million worldwide on opening weekend. It seemed fitting for a man whose death elicited worldwide grieving including a memorial moonwalk in Paris. Other fans lit candles for a vigil in Hong Kong. Crowds gathered to sing and dance outside of the Apollo Theater in New York City. Even world leaders expressed their remorse over the unexpected passing of the star.

However, the celebrity’s death highlighted another forum for grieving—Facebook. A reported 150,000 people commented on Michael Jackson’s Facebook wall in the hours and days following his demise. Similar messages were posted in memory of Farrah Fawcett and Patrick Swayze.

But this form of mourning isn’t only for venerating the famous. It has become an increasingly popular way to remember others who have passed on. When NIU student Alex Hartung was killed in a September 2009 car accident, his page was flooded with comments and condolences from family and friends. It became a place for mourners to gather in cyberspace and remember.

In light of the growing number of memorial postings, the social networking site has made adjustments to its policies. In October 2009, these changes were announced. According to a blog written by Facebook’s Director of Security Max Kelly, sensitive information such as contact information and status updates are removed after an account is memorialized following the person’s passing. Privacy is also set so that only confirmed friends can see the profile. The changes allow family and friends to leave posts on the profile Wall but prevent others from logging onto the page.

As well Facebook has developed an application called Mournwatch, an online site designed specifically for posting memories of loved ones.

These changing norms are coming to the attention of more traditional grief counselors. In an opinion piece written for the Christen Science Monitor, Diane Nash, the director of the Academic Access Program and a teacher of death and bereavement courses at the Marymount Manhattan College comments on the increased use of Facebook.

"Part of the willingness seems to be associated with the fact that Facebook is a place people can say what they truly feel without censoring one’s emotions. They mourn on Facebook because it is where their friends are, and in our mobile society, one’s laptop or iPhone seems more of a trusted way to meet friends than in a house of worship."

For some, the announcement of an individual’s demise on Facebook is unsettling. "Maybe it’s the inescapability of death on a medium associated with mindless goofing off that so unnerves us," says Denise Balkissoon in the Toronto Star. "Social networking keeps us in touch with far more people than we could have been just half a decade ago."

But in many ways, keeping in touch in cyberspace is a remote and detached experience—one that lets us in on the little mundane tidbits of others’ activities without ever being physically present in their lives. Just by making a post, people believe they are connecting. That belief may account for the fact that many messages posted on the mourning sites are written directly to the deceased. While the person who has passed on may not be able to pick up his or her messages, those left behind seem to be finding comfort in publishing their memories, anecdotes and tributes online to those who are gone.

More details about the movies mentioned in this post…