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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, March 27, 2010

Showing grief online can be cathartic, experts say

By Stephen Tait
Gannett News Service

Paul Thompson died more than six months ago. But the Port Huron, Mich., man's friends still are leaving heartfelt messages of grief and condolence on his MySpace page, where pictures of him mix with memories from his loved ones.

"Life isn't the same without you stopping in from time to time, telling your crazy stories ..." wrote Cheri Thibodeau. "Miss your smiling face!"

Thibodeau said leaving such notes is similar to visiting Thompson's grave. It's a way to connect with her friend, she said.

"It is showing you care and (that you've) thought about him," she said.

As social networking becomes a way of life, many sites such as Facebook and MySpace have turned into more than places to keep in touch. They and countless blogs and message boards have become a way for people to grieve without leaving their armchairs.

But is it healthy to type rather than say "I'm sorry for your loss?"

It depends, experts said.

"I think people grieve in so many different ways. It is so interesting today that we have all this Internet opportunity," said Dr. Nancy Rietdorf, a Kimball Township psychologist. "It is kind of amazing to me, as a bit of an old-timer, that people are using some of those ways to grieve in such a public way.

"It is really putting yourself out there, in some sense. But in other ways, it is not very personal, because you are not face to face or talking to someone."

At Rietdorf's psychology practice, she encourages people dealing with grief to put their feelings on paper.

"A lot of times, writing things down is very helpful to people," she said.

Whether that outpouring of emotion is on a piece of paper or a computer screen, "it is very cathartic" for many people.

Still, Rietdorf said those facing the death of a loved one also should turn to old-fashioned, face-to-face talks.

There should be, she said, a healthy combination.

"I would probably hope that people would also do some direct talking with people," she said.

Regina Friedmann, a social worker at Professional Counseling Center in Port Huron, said online grieving can be just as good as traditional grief therapy. "Anything that keeps a person from keeping it all bottled inside is probably helpful."

Message boards especially are important, she said.

"Message boards at funeral homes have been very helpful for family members or people who can't get to the funeral," she said. "It is almost just like a public journal, and that can be helpful to get emotions out."

Funeral homes started the virtual grieving movement almost a decade ago with message boards where people can post their condolences.


Kurt Demaagd, an assistant professor of telecommunication, information studies and media at Michigan State University, said grieving online "has been growing for many years," and the movement has pros and cons.

Social networking sites keep people in contact with a "second tier" of friends, allowing people who don't see each other regularly to keep up with what's happening. In the end, it creates a bigger support network.

At the same time, Demaagd said there is the possibility of "cyber slacking." Or, in other words, using social networking as a way to get out of, say, attending a funeral.

"You hear about (a death or funeral), then you just reply on Facebook, and it satisfies your need," he said. "And it makes you think you don't have to go to the funeral because you've already covered your bases."