Don’t kill off online tributes because of bad press
Online memorials have been getting a bad rap lately, and in many ways, rightly so. The cruel comments posted on the Facebook memorial page for murdered Brisbane 12-year-old Elliott Fletcher are nothing short of repulsive.
Even after the furore over the posting of pornographic images on Fletcher’ s site, insensitive and offensive comments persist. Amid good wishes to Elliott and his family, Matt Jackson has written on one Fletcher tribute page, “im famous, im on the world famous post hahahahaha hi mum im on tv lol.”
Scroll down. One of three “fan photos” at that page’s left shows Fletcher in life, grinning under tousled hair, with the words “Woot I’m [sic] dead” written over him in thick red marker.
Equally troubling were the vigilante-style Facebook groups set up to attack the accused murderer of 8-year-old Bundaberg schoolgirl, Trinity Bates. Facebook groups “Allyn John Slater Shall Die For What He Did” and “Allyn John Slater to Be Burned Alive” have been removed, but a disturbing precedent has been set.
Concerned Queensland Premier Anna Bligh wrote directly to Facebook head Mark Zuckerberg demanding action to prevent future pitchfork mobs from hijacking the social networking tool.
The two incidents put online memorials in the firing line. Is a memorial site open to anyone with access to a computer inviting trouble? Do these sites even help the bereaved? What purpose do they serve?
On this very site, the Liberal member for Indi in Victoria, Sophie Mirabella, questioned the value of online memorials last week, arguing that they could not compare to physical connection in times of bereavement.
She’s right. The warmth of a sincere embrace is not matched by a status update, no matter how heartfelt. But that does not mean online memorials are “a hollow imitation of genuine grief”, as Mirabella suggests. Rather, they are becoming a part of so-called “genuine grief” in an increasingly digital world, a new tool through which we can express and experience one of our most primal emotions.
For the past six months I have been researching and writing about people who grieve online. It is the subject of a project I am working on at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in NYC. I have spoken to anthropologists and psychologists who specialize in grief, both through academic study and clinical experience. I have interviewed people who blog about their deceased loved ones, as well as their families and friends, and I have spoken with those who own and operate sites on which memorials are posted, including Legacy.com.
This massive site provides online memorials for two-thirds of Americans who die. It has partnerships with most major newspapers here and families can buy space with them to create their own memorials. Back home, Legacy.com operates the obits website for Melbourne’s The Herald Sun newspaper.
The verdict from the people I’ve been speaking to is pretty clear: online memorials are a healthy extension of the offline grieving process. Mourners, academics and therapists say formation of online communities – on a Facebook page, on a blog or in the guestbook of an online memorial – is helpful.
There are obvious reasons. We live increasingly transient lives and families are often spread across the country and the globe. With Facebook or Legacy.com, a Sydneysider can post a tribute to a deceased cousin in Bendigo or Beijing.
Psychologists also emphasize that grieving is a 24/7 thing. Should you feel compelled to write something about your late grandmother at 3 am, you can. The Internet is always there; a person to hug is not.
But it’s the networking aspect of the Internet that really helps the bereaved.
The net allows people who have lost spouses to connect and discuss their feelings. It brings parents who have lost children together to discover they aren’t alone.
I recently spoke to one woman in Houston who had lost a baby at two months. She complained that in Houston there was nowhere she could go for counselling outside of church groups, and she was disillusioned with those. “I know at least four women in my real life who have lost a baby and they’ve all come to the point where they’ve accepted it and it’s God’s will,” she told me.
She wasn’t ready to move on; her wounds had not even begun to heal. Then she found a memorial blog written by a mother who had lost her baby daughter after only 28 days of life. It is one of hundreds of such amateur grief blogs.
More than a year on from her daughter Peyton’s death, the writer, Kristin, is still struggling with her grief. Kristin lives 2790 km away in Hartford, Connecticut, but the Texan mum felt a strong connection. “If I hadn’t found that blog, I would have been forced into healing when I wasn’t ready to heal,” she says.
Kristin herself says that’s the reason she continues to write about her baby girl and her struggles following her death. “I’ve talked to a lot of women who have been told early on to get over it, move on, whatever,” she told me one afternoon when we visited Peyton’s grave. “This is their place to go and be understood. Not just my blog but the whole blog community. If they’re reading it and it’s helping them in whatever way, that’s good. Just like some other blogs help me. They say things and I think that’s exactly how I feel – that’s how I’d react.”
Of course, there are dangers. One could post something offensive to Kristin’s blog as easily as they did to Elliott Fletcher’s memorial page. The effect could be as devastating.
For this reason, sites like Facebook must be monitored. Legacy.com does a good job of this. The company, based in Illinois, employs 80 “readers” to comb through over 80,000 notes left by commenters on its guest books every month.
Other sites need to be policed with similar diligence because the service they provide is valuable. Not as valuable as a hug, perhaps, but invaluable as an alternative.
When the smoke has cleared on the current Facebook scandal, it will not be the offensive comments and pictures that Fletcher’s parents remember. It will be comments like this, posted by Peter Cairns last Thursday.
“My brother sat next to this young boy everyday on the bus. I never met you but my brother said you were a nice person. RIP mate.”
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