When Faye and Mark Leveson established a Facebook page in memory of their son Matt, they turned their grief outwards. The willingness of people to support them, years after their son disappeared, presumed murdered, in 2007, gave them the confidence to keeping looking for answers. Their pain was there for the world to see.
"It's just overwhelming to see friends, friends of friends and complete strangers sharing the story," the Levesons say. "It has been five years and people are still willing to help. It does make us feel that we are being supported by a large part of the community for which we are truly grateful."
For Faye and Mark, the Facebook page also helps refocus their energies. "It gives us the feeling that we are being active in trying to find out what happened to our son," they say.
As a community we wrestle with the idea that bad things happen to good people. We have an understanding of the grey areas between life and death, but when we are faced with tragedies that befall seemingly "normal" people our perceptions of the world are shattered. It only takes a moment to show solidarity from our living rooms - to blog, to "like", to retweet - but what's to be gained in public displays of mourning, of acknowledging loss?
A study by the University of Pennsylvania has found that the traditional idea that we access help by sitting on a couch isn't reflective of the way people want to feel supported. They show this with their connection to the world of social media.
Similar to the US, NZ & Australian Facebook groups established to memorialise victims of crime or to locate missing people can jump from a handful of "likers" to thousands within the space of a few hours.
People seek ways to understand community tragedies by showing their solidarity in virtual numbers. The Pennsylvania study found that there are four tasks of mourning and that connecting in the online world is a way for people to readjust to a new way of seeing that world.
So why do people follow these pages - why do they grieve from afar? For some, it's a way of showing support for those left behind and for others it's a way to get a clearer picture of what has happened. For many there has to be some connection that makes them hover over the "like" button.
While Nat, an avid social media user, is happy to show her support from her own corner of the universe she believes there's a limit to such mourning.
"If there's no significance to me, I have to step back from it," she explains.
The places where she does show support are varied. "If the situation is close to my heart, or has some significance, not necessarily a personal connection then yes, I'll follow...
Maybe if the person lost their life from something that I've experienced or if it's someone around my age or area. If I don't connect with the situation then no, not because I don't care, but I believe, especially with grief, there's a limit to what I can take."
Social media creates the potential for the people who are grieving to do better collectively than they do alone. Grief is not static, it ebbs and flows similar to the online world where people can engage and disengage as they wish. There might not be a conscious thought between learning of a tragedy and showing support in our news feeds, but it is one way of creating a sense of community, albeit from afar.
- Daily Life
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