Facebook, MySpace and the grieving process

By Maraithe Thomas, News Correspondent

It’s a clear January afternoon and the view from Samantha Lavine’s 11th floor dorm room is vast. Cars whiz down the street in a lightning blur, students rush in and out of campus buildings and Fenway Park stands nestled among bare trees in the distance.
Inside the room, which is dim from half-drawn blinds, Lavine sits hunched over at her computer, legs crossed, scrolling through a myriad of photos on Facebook. Some of the photos are of her recently deceased friend, Rebecca Payne, a Northeastern student who was murdered last May in her Mission Hill apartment. The view, directly to her right, barely ignites Lavine’s interest.
Payne’s murder remains unsolved; police aren’t even sure if she knew her assailant.
And though Lavine’s room is scattered with collages of her friends, she admits that it wasn’t always easy to look at them. ‘When I moved in [after Payne’s death], I didn’t put up any pictures of my friends,’Lavine said.
That has changed.
‘My friends made me some nice collages,’she said, pointing to a framed collection of photographs, several of which include Payne.
Lavine said she has been using social networking sites like Facebook to look at pictures of Payne on her own terms’-and on her own time.
Since the explosion in popularity of social networking websites earlier this decade, 250 million MySpace accounts and 150 million Facebook accounts have been created, many of which belong to high school and college-aged users. Inevitably, some of the people who have created profiles on these websites have died, essentially turning once active web pages into the graveyards of the Internet.
After a user dies, there may be an influx of comments left on their page by friends or family members saying goodbye, much like a guest book at a funeral or wake. However, unlike a guest book, friends of the deceased user are able to leave comments for a much longer period of time, sometimes even for years after the person’s death.
Sara Corse, a Philadelphia psychologist specializing in grief and loss, said that because of the nature of social networking profiles, which may detail a user’s life and interests and allows a community of friends to share comments, they have become a useful tool in the mourning process.
‘The understanding of that person and the loss is fuller,’ Corse said. ‘Involving other people’s perspectives with your own is an important part of the grieving process.’
However, Corse added that users who post repeatedly and for long periods of time after a friend’s death may be using the site as a way to touch the wound and make it hurt again.’
After Payne’s death, Lavine said she turned to her friends for support and didn’t use Payne’s profile as a way to grieve. She said it only made it harder to deal with the loss of her friend.
Payne left Lavine a comment just a few days before her death. In fact, it was the last post that Payne would ever make on Facebook. The comment regarded a trip they had planned to take together, a subject which they often discussed. It haunted her, Lavine said.’
‘I cannot wait for Cancun!!! you are awesome and i am jealous that you saw the sex and the city movie already! and I love your profile picture! and I love you!’ the comment read.
Though Lavine said she rarely goes on Facebook to specifically look at Payne’s profile, she uses the site to create groups and events that inform people about fundraisers and memorial services for Payne.
One group, called ‘Becca Bracelets,’ advertises bracelets dedicated to Payne which aim to raise money for her scholarship fundraiser. The group currently has 375 members.
Lavine said she has been staying especially busy this school year to keep her mind off of things, which is something new for her’-but then again so is losing a best friend.
‘It was very hard for me at the beginning to even go on Facebook,’ Lavine said. ‘That last comment she left me was really hard for me to see every time I would log on.’
And while Facebook can be a hard way to deal with a loss with the annual birthday reminders and wall-to-wall notifications, many experts agree that the unique sense of community that these sites could provide is invaluable to the grieving process.
‘[The Internet] provides a convenient way for us to get our feelings out,’uml; said David Kessler, author of ‘The Needs of the Dying.’ ‘The Internet is available 24/7′-there are no support groups for a griever at 3 a.m.’
Kessler, who co-wrote two books with psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, including the latest edition of ‘On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss,’ added that Facebook is a useful tool because unlike cemeteries and memorials, Facebook is incredibly easy to access.
‘Grief is something that people have to express externally,’ he said. ‘There used to be town hall meetings and memorials. The Internet has become the new town hall.’
Grief counselor Joan Miller, who runs the Cove Good Grief Program through the Cove Center for Grieving Children in Connecticut added that support groups and community grieving is one of the most significant aspects of the mourning process.
‘The nicest thing about a peer support group, live or through the Internet, is that you can learn coping strategies from one another,’ Miller said. ‘It gives you a place to tell your story and it’s the telling of the story that helps a person process their grief.’
This very type of grieving can be seen on Matthew McCue’s Facebook profile. McCue was a Northeastern student who died last month after enduring a battle with cancer. McCue’s profile page has hundreds of comments from this month alone left by family and friends.
Many are from his 21-year old cousin Maura McCue, who recently posted a slew of home videos of Matthew McCue as a tribute. Through Facebook, Maura said she felt a sense of community surrounding Matthew’s death.
‘I met Matt’s roommates through Matt and through Facebook,’ she said.
‘We talk almost every week.’
Maura also said the Facebook group devoted to Matthew, which currently has over 400 members, has been a huge support for her and her family.
‘It’s about not feeling alone and realizing there are other people out there who loved him,’ she said.
It may seem only natural that after a user dies, their account remains frozen in time, left exactly as the user left it. But in some instances, when passwords are not kept entirely secret, friends and family can gain access to the account.
In Payne’s case, her father, Nicholas Payne, was made aware of her password by a friend of his daughter and logs in regularly to accept friend requests and learn about events and fundraisers related to his daughter.
‘I don’t want to be going on it too much because it seems weird to be on there,’ Nicholas Payne said.
Payne’s parents consider it a privilege to have access to their daughter’s Facebook account.
‘It’s been absolutely helpful [in the grieving process],’ said Payne’s mother, Virginia Payne.
Payne’s mother also said she hopes to use Facebook as a way to educate students about dangers in areas like Mission Hill, dangers she believes led to her daughter’s death.
‘We don’t want any parent to go through what we went through,’ she said. ‘The students should be aware of it.’
While most people who visit the profiles of the deceased do so out of personal interest, there is a growing community of those who look at such sites out of pure curiosity. Mike Patterson, 27, of San Francisco, said he has been intrigued by these virtual graveyards and, in 2005, he created a site called MyDeathSpace.com. Each entry on Patterson’s site details a deceased person’s name, date and place of death, along with a brief article explaining the circumstances under which the person died.
Patterson said he got the idea for the site when he read about a brutal murder in the Bay Area and looked up the profiles of the people involved. He became fascinated by the profiles and by the way friends left comments as a way of mourning. Patterson said he began regularly looking up the profiles of deceased people he would read about in newspapers.
The site currently has almost 4,000 documented death profiles, most of which document the deaths of those under the age of 30.
‘Most of the deaths are accidents like car accidents, drunk driving or other reckless behavior,’ Patterson said.
MyDeathSpace.com also has a forum, which acts as a medium for discussion on a wide range of topics and has become a mourning community in itself.
‘Some people are family members of the deceased people on the site and they’re on there to grieve or tell a story about them,’ he said.
Social networking sites have been used as a means of grievance since their inception. But this movement gained national attention after the Virginia Tech shooting of April 2007. Hundreds of Facebook groups formed following the shootings. Students used the groups, one in particular called ‘I’m OK at VT,’to provide frantic, fellow students and loved ones with information about their friends’ safety at Virginia Tech.
Though Facebook is currently the most popular social networking site, based on monthly unique visitors and according to the market researching company ComScore, MySpace was the first social networking site to have an explosion in popularity among adolescents after its launch in 2003. The site had 100 million users by August 2006.
Walter Carl, a professor of communication studies at Northeastern, said that social networking sites have become a lifestyle in and of themselves. He added that they have changed the way people think about their relationships with others.
‘It’s a way of people doing what they would do otherwise in terms of maintaining connections that correspond to offline communication,’ he said. ‘But it creates dynamics where people are in contact with people they wouldn’t otherwise seek out.’
Facebook actually has a clause in its terms of use that addresses what action they take in the event of being made aware of a user’s death. If contacted and provided with information about the death of a user, they will take additional steps to protect the privacy of its owner, according to the site. They do also add that they tend to keep the user’s profile under a special memorialized status for a period of time determined by other users to allow other users to post and view comments.
With Facebook attracting some 600,000 new users each day, according to InsideFacebook.com,’ and MySpace drawing about 300,000 new users daily, according to ArtsJournal.com,’ ‘ perhaps everyone will some day become traceable, both in life and death.
And while Lavine can keep coming up with ways to distract herself from looking at her friend’s page and finding ways to shove even more photographs into her crowded desk drawer, she knows she ultimately will have to begin moving on. Perhaps the trip to Cancun that she and four other of Payne’s closest friends are finally taking this coming March will fill the gap that violence left behind, she said.
Lavine sighs and for the first time in 30 minutes, shifts her attention away from the computer screen to the window. She looks back at the screen, now displaying Payne’s profile. She said, almost as an afterthought, ‘It’s nice to know she was so loved.’

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