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Sam Dean/The Roanoke Times/AP

Grieving 2.0: As Students Turn to Facebook to Mourn, How Should Parents, Teachers and Counselors React?

September 28, 2010 07:00 AM
by Colleen Brondou
With Facebook supplanting grief counselors as an outlet for grieving teens, schools need to participate in the process.

Teen Mourning in the Web 2.0 Era

Last March, after a 16-year-old boy was killed by a Long Island Rail Road train in an apparent suicide, within hours two Facebook groups had more than 600 members commemorating him, and countless status updates about the incident.

We will miss you Mike,” one such Facebook group, includes 25 photos of the teen, countless posts of condolence and a link to a newspaper article covering the event.

Before the Internet, students dealt with tragedy by talking to friends on the phone, listening to their parents and learning the rest at school or in the newspaper the next day. But with the Internet has come the ability to widely disseminate information, and the ability to instantly congregate, at least virtually, and commiserate.

Grief counselors always worry how other students may react, particularly in the case of suicide, with the potential for copycat cases. In this Web 2.0 era, how can parents, educators and counselors adapt to the instant, widespread dissemination of tragic news and the new forums for mourning?

Using Facebook to Mourn

Although a relatively new service, in countless cases, Facebook has provided an outlet for the grieving process, even alllowing parents to commiserate with their children's friends.

After the shooting at Virginia Tech University on April 16, 2007, students and alumni used Facebook to commemorate friends who had died and share information, Jesse North reported for Temple News.

“We could all support each other this way,” Tina Diranian, creator of a Facebook memorial group for a student that died at Virginia Tech, told North. “We were all scattered around the country, but this was a way we could be together.”

Dr. Sara Corse, a grief counselor at Philadelphia’s Council for Relationships, says the Internet and sites such as Facebook are beneficial ways for people to mourn. “What the Internet does for people is it allows, at any time or place that suits the person's emotional schedule, access to information and other people's feelings about something,” Corse told North. “It's a way people can move out of social isolation.”

After a car accident claimed the lives of four high school students in New Brunswick, Canada, in September 2007, student Jessica Richard told CBC News, “They have grief counsellors there at the school, but no one really wants to talk to them.” Instead, students flocked to Facebook.

Psychologist Charles Emmrys told CBC that in an online environment, it’s possible to “express the emotions that you have with a lot more honesty, with a lot more clarity” than in a face-to-face counseling session.

Some Educators Participate in the Process

Edie Parrott, an English teacher at Kennesaw Mountain High School in Georgia, saw firsthand the power of Facebook to help educators communicate with students. On her blog, Gladly Would I Teach, Parrott wrote about the death of a teacher who passed away on a Friday afternoon before a three-day weekend. Teachers and administrators were concerned about alerting students before they returned to school the following Tuesday.

E-mails to faculty and text messages to students were a good start, but Facebook “was the perfect vehicle to inform students rapidly,” Parrott wrote. “Perhaps Facebook’s greatest support, however, has been in allowing students to grieve collectively by sharing their feelings of loss and their wonderful stories about a beloved teacher.”

Though Parrott believes that mourning via Facebook isn’t the same as “grieving in the physical presence of others,” she believes that Facebook alone had the power to bridge the gap caused by a long weekend, and “has become a remarkable tool to allow students to share and cope with such a great loss.”

Ric Murry, a teacher in Georgia, published a blog post about how Facebook helped him and some former students cope when his son’s best friend, a college cross country runner, died during a summer road race. He met many of his former students at the wake, and wrote that they “wanted (needed) someone to talk to...someone who would listen. They were heading back to college in two days, and didn't know what to do. One of them asked if I was on Facebook….By the time I was home (about 3 hours later) I had more than a dozen requests on my Facebook page...all former students. That's when the power of Facebook hit me. It is about relationships, not technology.”

In this week’s tragedy on Long Island, the students planned a candlelight vigil for the deceased at the railroad station. The school learned about it from the Facebook group and urged students not to proceed up to the station platform, which could have created dangerous crowding. Police were alerted, and the vigil proceeded in a safe manner.

Related Topic: Twitter’s role in mourning

Despite “the mourning precedents set by Facebook and MySpace,” Dan Macsai wrote for Fast Company in August 2009, “Twitter has handicapped our ability to mourn.”

Macsai pointed to the tweets that followed Michael Jackson’s death, and quoted a study by Elsa Kim and Sam Gilbert, who analyzed the nearly 2 million tweets on Jackson. Rather than use Twitter as a “memorial” like Myspace or Facebook, Kim and Gilbert observed, Twitter users commented on Jackson’s death as “a current event” and were “less inclined to memorialize or collectively grieve.”

Macsai quoted an April 2009 study that claimed that “rapid-fire news updates and instant social interaction are too fast for the 'moral compass' of the brain to process." Therefore, the study said, avid Twitter users “could become indifferent to human suffering, because they never get time to reflect and fully experience emotions about other people's feelings."

Reference: Teen suicide hotlines is a nonprofit organization dedicated to prevented suicides and offering support to suicide survivors. Find a list of several suicide prevention hotlines right on the homepage.

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