Digital Mourning: Online Grief and Loss Explained

Death has gone digital, and so has grief.

Do you remember your last tweet or Facebook status? No? Well, the Internet will, even after you die. Your family and friends have a new set of digital tools to grieve over your death because your life has been recorded online.

Grief in a Digital Age

Jessica Ghawi was gunned down during the midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises.

This was Jessica Ghawi's last tweet before she died.

Jessica's Story

For Jessica Ghawi’s friends and family, their digital grieving began on the 20th of July, 2012. One of the 12 victims of the Aurora Shooting in Colorado, Ghawi tweeted her excitement to a friend about going to watch ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ at the midnight screening. 30 minutes later Jessica was killed after suffering gunshots to the leg and head.

A month before the Batman Massacre, the aspiring sportscaster survived a separate shooting at the Eaton Center in Toronto. She blogged about the event and the ‘empty, almost sickening feeling’ it left in her chest. That blog post and the last few tweets she sent out before her death have been viewed by thousands globally. Her wit, her insights and her personality are captured digitally and preserved for friends, family and well-wishers who have never met Ghawi.

Online Outpouring after Jessica's Death

In honour of her memory, people used the hashtag #RIPJessica to memorialise her death on Twitter

Outpourings from the Internet grieving Jessica Ghawi's death


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After her death, Ghawi’s followers banded together and #RIPJessica trended, a fitting tribute as Ghawi was an active and engaged Twitter user. Her brother, Jordan Ghawi, blogged about the moments after her death and the establishment of an Official Jessica Redfield Sports Journalism Scholarship Fund in her name.

The outpouring of support for my family is overwhelming. Hearing from people from all over the world. My family thanks you. Let us continue to focus on the victims.Jordan Ghawi

Her friend and fellow sports-writer, Jesse Spector, wrote a tribute to her on sportingnews.com. He lamented the loss of a friend that, while their relationship occurred mostly in a digital space, was very dear to him.

It was pure silliness, sharply sarcastic and made me smile. Only now, her shout of "MOVIE DOESN'T START FOR 20 MINUTES" is just haunting.Jesse Spector

More Last Messages Left Online

Below are stories of people who left messages online before they died. These include final tweets, tumblr posts, photos, forum posts and blogs.


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It has been a natural progression for people to share their feelings and experiences on social media the same way they share all their other experiences. The access to digital tools is giving us new ways to mourn death and loss.

Kristie West, a Grief Specialist based in London, said that collective grief can happen on a much larger and much more open scale through social media. Sharing thoughts and feelings with millions of people around the world can now be easily done with social media, which also provides a platform for interaction between them. In response to such deaths and disaster, solidarity and support are often shown through a formation of Facebook groups, as an example, bringing a community connection.

Grieving Online

West also said that social media has changed the way we connect with others and it is transforming the method of how people express and share their grief in the event of a death. With social media, she believes that people can be more open about their experiences. It also puts the topics of death and grief in others more often, which is really important, as it adds more awareness surrounding death.

Many popular social media websites are able to memorialise a person’s profile after they die, or provide the opportunity to create a shrine to a lost loved one, for example:

A new set of tools to grieve online:

  • Grief Forums - Just like you can join the Facebook or the Pinterest online community, there are a number of social networks dedicated to bringing together mourners who want to memorialise a loved one, share memories and share their grief experience to help them deal with their loss.
  • Online Memorial - There are also dedicated websites which will allow you to create a digital memorial of your loved one, archive photos, profiles, letters and documents, as well as access their final message. This creates a place for people to remember their loved ones.
  • Pinterest Shrine - Allows loved ones to pin photos and letters of a person who has passed away, to create a visual memorial online.
  • Tweet to Remember - Memories can be shared and loved ones memorialised through Twitter with the use of hashtags, allowing friends and family to track memories or photos posted about a person.
  • MySpace Death - This is a catalogue of MySpace users who have passed away, and offers a forum and archive where loved ones can go to share their grief and work through their experiences.
  • Facebook Memorial - Facebook is able to turn an ordinary profile page into a memorial page after the person dies, to allow friends to continue to post messages of love and support for the family, while removing the deceased person’s wall posts and contact details. Another option is to create a private Facebook group which is accessible by invitation only, to allow friends and family to share memories, messages and photos.

How To Deal With Loss on Social Media

Facebook Mourning Table


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Twitter


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Real-life Examples of Dealing With Grief Online

Digital mourning is giving us more and more unique ways to express the feelings of grief when we lose a loved one. The cases below show how this has changed.

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Today, it is possible that people find themselves memorialised digitally in some form in the future.

Online Celebrity Death Tributes

The following stories show how the death of public figures and celebrities ignite social media channels. Millions of fans pay their respect through blogging, videos, tweets and heartfelt messages.

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Hoax Morgan Freeman Facebook page

Not every celebrity death is well received. And not every celebrity death is even real.

The celebrity death hoax is not a novel phenomenon - Steve Burns and Scott Baio have been ‘dead’ since 1997 and Bill Cosby has ‘died’ no less than four times. Morgan Freeman’s particular iteration of the fad began on the Facebook page ‘R.I.P. Morgan Freeman’ which has over 60,000 likes. He is only the latest in the morbid internet meme, and likely not the last. Freeman’s representative had to publicly announce “Morgan is alive and well, and joins the long list of actors who have been victimised by this hoax” to E Online.

Facebook pages about Morgan Freeman now have written in the ‘About’ section “He's still alive and well, stop believing what you see on the internet.”

With the internet being an open forum, these hoaxes crop up often and repeatedly. Essentially, they are harmless and easily dissipated. Less so are the cases where online memorials were 'trolled'. R.I.P Trolls are a next level in the mockery of death online.

Warning! Watch out for those who prey on online memorials

Beware of R.I.P Trolls

The anonymous nature of the internet has created the perfect environment for harassment, where people known as ‘trolls’ make insensitive comments about other users to spread hate. Unfortunately the attacks from trolls are not limited to the profiles and pages of living users, and some trolls will even make these distasteful and hurtful comments on memorial websites and the profile pages of the deceased. These individuals are known as RIP Trolls.

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The hurt and despair felt by the family and victims of a RIP Troll is hard to imagine – on top of the grief and loss they are feeling, they see hateful comments and obscene photos posted by strangers to incite and spread anger. In the case of RIP Trolls on Facebook, the behaviour can be reported to the Facebook team, who will remove the offensive posts and disable the Troll’s account. The site also relies on self regulation and careful moderation by the page owners. Self regulation through careful moderation by page owners and other users is also very important as it is the most direct and fastest form of treatment against Trolls.

How to Protect your Memorial Pages

While the recommended course of action for dealing with Trolls is to ignore and ‘not feed the Trolls'.

Here are some simple tips to consider when protecting a loved one's profile:

  • Memorialise their page - this will ensure that only friends and family can see and comment on the page.
  • If you want to create a page, make it private - try to avoid creating a public page as these are open to trolls.
  • If you do make a public page - monitor the posts very carefully and implement a comment moderation system where possible.

Crackdown on Memorial Vandalism

The biggest threats to public memorial pages on the internet are R.I.P Trolls, but their distasteful behaviour is not without consequence. The Internet is not a wholly unregulated forum for abuse. In many countries, laws and systems have been put in place to ensure that this kind of attitude is not tolerated.

Chief among these forward-thinking nations is the U.K. with their Communications Act 2003. The legislation has already been used in the latter half of 2011 to try one R.I.P troll who defaced the memorial page of the 15 year old Worcestershire teen, Natasha MacBryde. He posted insensitive comments, calling her a ‘spoiled little slut’, despite never having met MacBryde, and even created a video mocking MacBryde’s manner of death; she jumped in front of a train and the vandal’s video, ‘Tasha the Tank Engine’, mocked that by using MacBryde’s face on the children’s character, Thomas the Tank Engine. The page became a popular spot for other trolls, inciting comments like ‘I heard she caught the midnight train going no where’ and images such as a Simpsons screenshot of Lisa’s valentines card saying “I Choo- Choo- Choose You” with a picture of a train.

The troll responsible for the video was tried for the MacBryde comments, but also for three separate cases of trolling memorial pages. Lauren Drew, 14, Hayley Bates, 16 and Jordan Cooper, 14, were all victims of R.I.P Trolls, their families understandably distraught by the comments but consoled in that the perpetrator was sentenced to 18 weeks. Despite the defence citing his Aspergers Syndrome and alcoholism as contributing factors, he was also given an Asbo barring him from any social media access for five years.

A person is guilty of an offense if s/he sends by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character

-Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003, Improper use of public electronic communications network

There are multiple cases of R.I.P Trolls who have been tried under this particular section of the legislation. The previous year, in Manchester, another troll was tried and sentenced for posting insensitive comments, defaced images and sexual slurs on the memorial pages of Jade Goody (a reality TV star who died of cancer). In this case, the prosecuting lawyer commented on the defendants attitude: ‘The defendant told police that he finds the comments amusing. He said it causes reaction”.

Another case of trolling concerns April Jones, the 5 year old girl with cerebral palsy who went missing from her yard in Wales in October, 2012. The comment, likening the missing girl to the Madeleine McCann case, was posted during the height of the search for the young girl, inciting the 215,000 members of the Facebook page to anger. He, being from Lancashire in the U.K, was charged under the Communications Act 2003, section 127, and sentenced to 12 weeks in an Young Offender Institution.

Social media and the internet can be used for wonderful purposes, but there do exist those who will abuse the forum to troll. Making hurtful and abusive comments online and on memorial websites, saying things they would never say to a person’s face, is cowardly behaviour and it won’t go unpunished.

Trial by Social Media: How Online Mourning Can Have an Impact on Court Cases

While online memorials can help friends and family of a lost loved one find closure, recent cases have shown the power that these memorial sites have in jeopardising court proceedings as online anger surges against the accused.

In Australia, a teenager by the name of Thomas Kelly, 18, was murdered in July at Kings Cross, the well-known Sydney red light district. Kelly was walking with his girlfriend when he got struck in the head by Kieran Loveridge, 17, just after 10 PM. Loveridge, having gone on a rampage before crossing paths with Kelly, assaulted an 18-year-old boy just before and two other men after within the same area. All attacks were unprovoked and occurred in just under an hour. While the other victims survived Kelly tragically passed away two days later. Kelly’s case quickly sparked strong opinions across different social media networks. Loveridge’s pictures sprang up all over Facebook and Twitter with accusations of ‘murderer’ and “monster” along with them. An anonymous user was reported after opening a Twitter account under the name ‘Kieran Loveridge’, sending photos of the accused to journalists and media organisations.

Trial by social media, as they call it, caused a red flag amongst Australian legal experts as it posed a threat to criminal cases. It is important to remember that the accused has the right of presumption of innocence and for a fair trial. Associate Professor Alex Steel, from the University of New South Wales’ (UNSW) law school, said that people publishing comments online on social media networks without thinking of the consequences can be problematic.

Leigh Sales
Leigh Sales, ABC1 anchor, tweeted a reminder to her followers regarding Thomas Kelly’s trial

In contrast, University of Sydney’s Associate Professor David Rolph, said that in the eyes of the law, particularly when a trial is in motion, non-traditional media channels will not be distinguished from that of traditional media. So, it is possible that users could be held legally responsible for the comments posted on their social media accounts. Dr Rolph also stated that when a channel facilitates conducts such as interference with a person’s right to a fair trial, defamation, breach of confidence, or invasion of privacy, the legal system may view the website that carries the content or the user to be liable.

Police Tweet
A tweet by Victoria Police, in the light of a recent murder case with an ongoing trial

Future of Online Memorials

Your life is transitioning online, therefore it is important to prepare for your digital death, in the same way you would for a physical death. Plan the legacy you want to leave behind for your family to remember you by, and the thoughts, experiences and images you want to share with future generations.

Plan Your Digital Death



What Happens Online When You Die


Expert Guide to Protect Yourself Online Before You Die

As you consider how your digital self is going to live on through changes in technology, communication and data storage, consider how your family will memorialise you, and how your friends and family will continue to interact and remember you after you’re gone.

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2 Responses to Digital Mourning: Online Grief and Loss Explained

  1. Default Gravatar
    | October 18, 2012

    In my own observation, social networking has long developed into a norm that almost any part of the world has adapted to. It has obviously become a big part of many people’s lives nowadays. However, the thought of what happens online when someone dies never occurred to me ’til now.

    This piece clearly shows a picture of that and I’ve learned quite a few things from it, such as there are existing tools that allow people to grieve online. But I find that a bit strange and I don’t know if it’s really necessary to do so. I mean, anything you do or put on the internet can easily go public. And we all know that anything out in the public can become an easy target to ridicule or criticism. Just like in the real world, both decent and indecent people exist online. And I think grieving there by putting out a lot of emotions and too much information about the diseased person (in public) is not such a good idea. Grieving is still best done intimately, around people who truly care. But then again, not all people have the same opinions and grieving online can be done with one’s own discretion anyway. In any case, only tools with privacy settings should be utilized by people who are sensitive to negative comments in order to keep bashers out.

    On the other hand, creating tributes and memorial pages can also be beneficial, especially since it allows the friends and loved ones of the deceased to look back into the person’s life and simply let them recreate those happy moments they had together. This development in the digital world is good for people who do not just want their memories to live forever, but to also give the future generations a chance to get to know them sometime.

  2. Default Gravatar
    | October 18, 2012

    Very interesting post

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