Grieving in a digital age

STILL THERE: Emily Longley’s father, Mark, finds comfort in tributes from his daughter’s friends which are still left on her Facebook page.
STILL THERE: Emily Longley’s father, Mark, finds comfort in tributes from his daughter’s friends which are still left on her Facebook page.

It started with the occasional "RIP grandma", childhood pets getting put down and then friends announcing a parent had a life-threatening diagnosis. It progressed to desperate notes from those tired of life, wanting out; the flurry of confused grief that comes with any tragic car crash, crime or shock death.

All of this wedged between selfies, wine bottles, sunsets and advertisements.

Facebook became embedded in the New Zealand online scene in 2007 as teenagers across the country moved to the social media site (after tiring of short-lived predecessors My Space and Bebo), documenting their lives online.

REMEMBERED: Facebook offered a less formal and more immediate forum to grieve for Abigail Ann Hone, left, and Ella Yasmin Summerfield, both aged 12, who died in a crash in Rakaia a fortnight ago.
REMEMBERED: Facebook offered a less formal and more immediate forum to grieve for Abigail Ann Hone, left, and Ella Yasmin Summerfield, both aged 12, who died in a crash in Rakaia a fortnight ago.

Now, Facebook's first generation is facing up to an inevitable fact of life: death. And, as the site enters its 10th year, it is no longer just the home-ground of 20-somethings, users of all ages are embracing a newer process of grief.

Recently an online tribute page created following the deaths of 12-year-olds Abi Hone and Ella Summerfield received nearly 40,000 "likes" and messages of sympathy.

But what compels people to share these inner moments of despair - the long eulogies that start "dear (deceased's name)" and finish with "178 people like this" and a thumbs-up icon?

In a place where pictures of new-borns, graduation gowns and job promotions dominate, it's logical to take the next step and talk about the harsher realities of life, says social media researcher Richard Pamatatau.

"People use the internet to express themselves - what they had for breakfast, when they're going to a party - it's just natural they will express grief in the same way."

This no boundaries approach has replaced traditional newspaper death notices, says Val Leveson, a grief counsellor for New Zealand Grief Centre.

"Death is a big part of life and we try to move far away from it. With social media it is brought into the public eye - people do cry, people do die and it can be shocking."

But New Zealanders aren't good at dealing with grief, says Leveson, and social media provides a beneficial distance.

"You can step back and think about what you want to say instead of saying something inappropriate or avoiding the person."

In November 2010, the Pike River Mine tragedy prompted one of the first virtual public mass grieving situations in New Zealand. People went to Facebook and Twitter for updates on the missing 29 men and a public page - "Supporting the Pike River Miners" - garnered 138,500 "likes".

It was here those shocked by the explosion that killed the West Coast men could express their grief. Avatars were changed to a candle and - four years later - family, friends and strangers still post their condolences as a reminder they haven't forgotten.

In May 2011, 17-year-old Aucklander Emily Longley was murdered by her boyfriend after moving to England.

Again, online tribute pages were created as her New Zealand and England-based friends expressed sorrow at the loss of the former Auckland Westlake Girls' student.

Some pages end up being pulled after internet trolls defaced them with lewd photos and nasty comments. But Emily's personal Facebook page is still active, where friends post tributes and remember her fondly. Emily's father, Mark Longley, finds comfort in tributes from his daughter's friends, saying it outweighs the negativity of trolls.

"I still go onto her page and look at pictures and posts. I certainly found it comforting and Emily's mother, Caroline, did too. It's nice to see people still post on her birthday; they still remember her - as a parent that means a lot."

Longley entered a "deep sense of shock" when Emily died. He had moved to Whakatane two months before and had seen her when she visited family in New Zealand - a week before the murder.

"I felt very isolated just being here with my partner in a new town, not knowing anybody and the nearest people I cared about being four hours away. It was comforting having people making lovely comments about Emily on Facebook. It helped with that sense of isolation."

Leveson says when people write messages or change profile pictures to those of the deceased it's a way of keeping the bond alive.

"There is the sense that the person may be dead but their relationship isn't. It's a way of processing grief and wanting to be heard."

A common mistake people make when seeing friends experience the death of a loved one is thinking they will get over it.

"This isn't true," Leveson said. "You never stop thinking about a person. Posting on social media is saying: ‘Well, I'm bringing this person forward because I actually am thinking about them'."

Young people express their grief on social media in different ways. Long-gone are the days of formal notes, instead pain is immediate, shown through multiple exclamation marks and sad faces - "I'm SO sorry :( !!!!!!!" This is because the immediacy of social media can prompt a raw emotional response, not previously seen in traditional conversations about death, Leveson says.

It is unfiltered and genuine - a way for younger people to connect on a similar level instead of the formal adult-like manner expected at funerals.

People grieving are often caught up in their loss and don't realise hundreds, thousands or millions of people (depending on privacy settings) can see their heartfelt messages, Longley says.

And observing an acquaintance from parties-past dealing with death online is akin to lurking behind someone at a grave; they don't know you're there and it's slightly intrusive.

There is also the possibility for speculation and hurtful comments - where once verbal slurs could be ignored, social media cements words for all to see.

"I still come across comments that are really quite hurtful, that imply she deserved it. There was a lot of talk that she was a junkie and overdosed - that side of it is nasty and you've got to distance yourself from it," Longley says.

After hearing about his daughter's death, he travelled to England and during his flight the darker aspects of social media unfolded.

"It was the people that didn't know her well . . . I don't know why you would kick a dead person.

"We had so many journalists sending us friend requests - that was a pain in the ass. I posted things on Emily's page that I thought were private and not for one moment did I think I would be reading about it in the paper the next day . . . And there was a photographic agency in England that took pictures of my Facebook page (of me and Emily) and then sold them on to newspapers.

"I phoned them up and said ‘that's not strictly legal is it?' and he said ‘well, nobody's proved it's illegal'.

"The whole thing made me realise when something is on Facebook, it's public and people will have no qualms about raiding it and picking the bones."

Longley is still grateful for the platform Facebook provided him to grieve - he never used the site until Emily's death and is now in contact with many of her friends as they reach adulthood.

"Since she died in England it gave her friends here something to share.

"With death there is a huge outpouring of emotion, confusion and frustration and her friends were only 17-18. You don't expect people to die at that age.

"She was a great girl. She wasn't quite as bad as they made her out to be but she certainly was a handful. She was good fun and there was never a dull moment with her."

Longley says social media helped people feel comfortable talking about Emily.

"Kiwis are pretty bad. You listen to other people talking about their kids who are alive and suddenly your kid is not alive and people think you don't want to talk about her any more.

"That's not the case at all. She's still my daughter, it's just she's not here anymore."

Whether online grieving is helpful or not depends on the individual - Leveson cites those who lost loved ones in 9/11 who ended up feeling like they didn't have their own personal grief because of public mourning.

"They actually felt alienated themselves, like they'd lost the connection to the person because everyone else was grieving for them too."

But, for Longley, comments from strangers were surprisingly comforting.

"I think that was a bit odd. It's still a bit odd. When the whole thing played out, her story touched a lot of people. She was a very striking girl and people relate to that. It's quite weird when people said: ‘I don't know you but it's such a tragedy' but I guess it's nice as well.

"It's the same with the page for Abi and Ella. That's a huge outpouring of emotion and I'd imagine the tributes would be quite comforting for the families.

"I think social media and Facebook is a good way for people to cycle through those emotions and react immediately to it and I guess that's happening with these two girls as well."

Sunday Star Times