Logging On and Letting it Out: Grieving Online

The Internet is now a destination for far-flung communities to mourn together.

June 27, 2007 — -- Whether it's your own personal life or the latest celebrity gossip, it's no secret that everyone likes to talk.

The advent of the Internet -- along with blogs, instant messenger programs and social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace -- has made doing just that even easier.

Now topics and issues many people have traditionally preferred to keep private -- such as death -- have increasingly become the focal point of online forums, blogs and message boards.

Following ABC News' report on the murder-suicide of pro wrestler Chris Benoit, his wife and 7-year-old son, the site's online comment boards were flooded by readers writing in and sharing their reactions to the story.

As of press time, there were 1,152 comments for that story alone. Many readers offered prayers and condolences, while others voiced outrage over the violent nature of the crime. Benoit reportedly strangled and suffocated his wife and son before hanging himself.

One online commenter wrote: "What a horrible way to die. This man had some serious problems. And hanging him self [sic] that is one terrible way to die. My heart goes out to her family, and his. This was totally senseless. But I guess he MIGHT have been very depressed, and thought this was the only way to solve it. His family and hers are in my prayers. May God wrap his loving arms around all of you in this time of your sadness."

Another expressed anger toward World Wrestling Entertainment for its tribute to Benoit: "WWE should be ashamed for praising a murderer last night."

It is no surprise that people have a lot to say about an event like this one, but why do those suffering from grief feel compelled to share their feelings with everyone in cyberspace?

Online Memorials, Web Sites for the Dead

Believe it or not, grieving online is more common than you may think.

There is a market for Web sites that will create memorial pages -- at a nominal fee -- to remember and honor the deceased. These sites also offer online guest books in which users can sign their names and offer condolences. Some even allow you to light a virtual candle for the deceased.

Legacy.com, for example, posts obituaries online that also appear in 60 percent of newspapers nationwide. Users can also leave audio messages for their loved ones, and slideshows of photos can be created.

A similar Web site, muchloved.com, is based in the United Kingdom and allows customers to create a page and decide if they want it to be public -- and accessible to everyone -- or private and accessible only to invitees. Although it has only been online for a few months, owner Jonathan Davis said he has around 25 new requests each day.

Facebook, the social networking site that adds 100,000 new users every day, has seen a flourishing of memorial groups too.

"There are millions of groups on the site, so it's really hard to know which ones are dedicated to a loved one or a friend, but certainly we encourage these groups to be set up," said Brandee Barker, director of corporate communications at Facebook.

"Individuals make the choices on how they mourn the loss of someone and that takes a variety of forms depending on the person."

Performing a simple search on Facebook will show that there are already more than 500 groups dedicated to Benoit and his family. While some may have been pre-existing fan sites, the majority of them were made in response to the murder-suicide.

The Virginia Tech tragedy also spurred a wave of Facebook groups as well as Web sites dedicated to providing a forum to help mourn the loss of the 22 students who were killed by fellow student and shooter Seung-Hui Cho.

Virginia Tech junior Matthew Emma took it upon himself to create a memorial Web site, VTUnited.org, to deal with his grief. He was just two buildings away on the day of the shootings, and said the site gave him a way to help other students express their feelings.

"I couldn't just sit there and cry," said Emma. "That's not the Virginia Tech way."

His site has thousands of posts from people worldwide sharing their thoughts on the incident.

Security Issues

A main concern with sites that offer virtual memorials is the risk of people making pages for people who aren't really dead. But this kind of abuse is not a huge concern of these sites, all of which have mechanisms to prevent fraudulent entries.

Web sites like Legacy.com and Muchloved.com either have people whose job it is to review posts and check for accuracy or require a small credit card deposit to make it just that much more difficult to obtain a page.

"People can say very ugly things about the deceased in very nice words, so we read to make sure they don't end up on online," said Hayes Ferguson, chief operating officer of Legacy.com.

Facebook said its users report abuse quite a bit themselves, and they also have a team of employees who are constantly scouring the site for fake profiles or offensive material.

Why Grieve Online?

For many, sharing extensive emotional feelings online may seem impersonal, but many psychologists argue that the anonymity of Internet memorials is exactly what attracts people.

"Internet sites have an increased amount of control and a sense of safety and security," said Susan Sylvia, a clinical psychologist in the psychology department at St. Louis Children's Hospital. "The ability to log on and have what you need available to you emotionally is enticing."

Sylvia said Web sites and message boards allow users to control how much they share or express, rather than feeling pressured to perform during in-person therapy groups.

Karen Cutaneo, a psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker in New Jersey, told ABC News that the role of technology in people's life has transformed the way people interact.

"I think [younger adults] get a lot of information off the Internet," said Cutaneo. "It's less confrontational and less intimidating to type in their grief and to communicate through their words and typing rather than verbal expression."

The Right Way to Grieve

While there is no "correct way" to grieve, therapists say that there are some ways that are better than others. They are wary of individuals who rely solely on the Internet to talk about traumatic events.

"Sometimes they'll get online looking for what is the right way to grieve and what are other people thinking feeling and doing," said Sylvia. "When it's inconsistent with what they're feeling it's confusing."

She told ABC News that many people who grieve online are unable to deal with other people's losses in addition to their own.

"The roller coaster ride of somebody else's story can be a bit overwhelming," said Sylvia." When you are grieving, hearing about other people's grief can sometimes be too much."