On March 8, a young man marking a painful anniversary went to Reddit.com and posted three short sentences and a photograph depicting a heartbreaking story of young love nipped in the bud by cancer.
"A year ago today, I proposed to the love of my life. She passed away 5 days later due to ovarian cancer. She was only 17," he wrote in words that moved more than 1,800 members of Reddit's online community to respond.
When strangers asked why he proposed to a dying woman, the young man, identified only as koolaidman2011, explained: "We found out she wasn't responding to her treatment two days after I proposed, and she only got worse after that. The doctor hadn't told us the severity of her situation at that point in time. So yes, I proposed to her just as any person would. I never could have imagined she wouldn't be here today."
By choosing to share such raw emotion in an open forum, koolaidman2011 might have been seeking an outlet for his grief, empathy for a searing loss and perhaps a chance to connect with others who'd endured similar pain. A newbie to the site, he said he'd only been registered a couple of days when he posted his story of lost love.
The vast majority of responders to his online grieving offered kindness and compassion. "At least she died knowing love. You'll chug through, a young buck like you will do awesome," one person wrote. "I'm crying dude. I'm so sorry," offered another. Several shared losses of parents, siblings, and lovers, and how they'd gotten through them.
And yet, for what might only be explained as the darker side of human nature, some people, shielded by their online names, posted nasty comments. Several accused the grieving fiancé of "whoring" for karma points – a reference to Reddit's system of ranking posts based on users' votes and assigning karma points for "how much good the user has done for the Reddit community," according to the Reddit website.
Their anonymity is "part of the danger," of posting to a general audience, said Gary M. Laderman, an Emory University religion professor who specializes in death and dying. "More often than not you have aliases, different avatars, different ways to identify yourself where you can shield your true identity."
That emboldens some people to "be really rude, whether it's some kind of story on the politics of the day, or really personal issues," Laderman said. Even though most people would assume that common rules of decency would prevail, "online and on the web, those things are out the window."
Eventually the identity of koolaidman2011 would be revealed.
Despite the veil of anonymity provided by his Reddit screen name, little is truly private in the digital age. When one Reddit user apparently recognized the woman in the photograph with koolaidman2011 as Morgan Brantley, some quick online searches turned up several stories about Morgan Alizabeth Brantley, a Kokomo, Ind., High School senior and varsity swimmer whose illness and death united her community. The Kokomo Tribune also reported on her bedside marriage proposal from Zach Whiteman, a fellow senior and varsity basketball player, and their real-life love story.
From Brantley's diagnosis on Dec. 17, 2010, through her death on March 13, 2011, friends and loved ones posted thoughts and prayers on three Facebook pages, raised money for medical expenses and sported "Team Morgan" T-shirts designed by Whiteman. The "Pray for Morgan Brantley," page featured the same photograph Whiteman posted on Reddit.
Younger People More Comfortable Expressing Themselves Virtually
Whiteman, now a college freshman, didn't respond to attempts to reach him through Reddit and Facebook to learn whether the online posting provided any solace.
"If it's only been a year since his fiancée died, his grief is still very fresh," said bereavement counselor Pamela Gabbay, program director of the Mourning Star Center for Grieving Children in Palm Desert, Calif. "I think that he was focusing on the positive, his memories and his love for her, and never thought that people would be negative, mean and cruel."
Many younger people reared in the online age "are more comfortable expressing their most intimate feelings in a virtual fashion," Gabbay said. However, she said that dedicated sites for the bereaved tend protect them from the stinging comments of critical outsiders in more open forums like Reddit. "Typically, grieving people tend to be kind to each other because they know what it feels like to be hurting."
Whiteman's posting illustrates how the Internet has made grieving a much more public ritual, Laderman said. "There's a whole plethora of online grieving support networks and memorialization pages that are very much focused on people struggling with grief. The online virtual world has really become important."
Cyberposts can provide comfort to the grief-stricken, which is "why we're seeing more of the kinds of sites or posts where people are putting their little testimonial or memorial," Laderman said. "This is part and parcel of larger trends around death and dying in our culture that are breaking it out from purely religious institutions and authority and from the controlling hand of the funeral industry."
Ultimately,Gabbay said, online forums and discussion boards can provide healing and comfort, but virtual interactions "cannot replace face-to-face support. The Internet can't give you a hug."
Some online sites and interactive forums dedicated to grieving and loss: