Facebook used to grieve the loss of a loved one?  Why not, it seems facebook is continuing to take over many people’s lives and it only make sense that facebook would be involved in how people grieve the loss of a loved one.  I remember first hearing about the fact Facebook had the ability to create “memorial” pages for people who died which were pages full of posts, pictures and information about the deceased.  While this seems wierd to many people, others have found comfort in the ability to keep their loved one “alive” and continue to interact with their facebook page.  Is this healthy however?  Although always painful, there is a proper way to grieve and a harmful way to grieve. Does facebook help or hurt?

Like most uses for facebook, it has potential to provide some good but as usual it has been taken too far and now has deleterious consequences for people who use these online memorials to remember their loved ones.  First let’s outline the grieving process and which steps can be either helped or hurt by memorializing someone on facebook.

Most psychiatrists accept a 5-7 step grieving process which does not necessarily occur in the same order for every person but in general to conceptualize this topic, here are the major processes involved in grieving:

1-Numbness and Denial-Upon finding out the news of loss, emotions are “numb” and people sometimes cannot believe the news is actually true. Even if they do know its true on a concious level, unconciously their mind is in a state of denial.  This numbness and denial actually protects us from the overwhelming stress that occurs when we have a catastrophic loss, however this stage has to be only a temporary bridge to further processing the loss

2-Anger, Guilt and emotional pain-As the numbness wears away in days-weeks, the severe emotional pain sinks in. Reality sinks in and our emotions are filled with anger, guilt over “not stopping this from happening” and brutal emotional pain.  This phase is by far the most painful few weeks-months any human can go through. This is the stage where people garner support from family and friends to blunt some of the pain and feel emotionally lifted out of the darkness. The more support the better here.

3-Bargaining and more anger-As the weeks go on, the anger at feeling responsible or blaming others for being responsible, even when there was clearly nobody at fault predominates one’s emotions. Bargaining with God or a higher power occurs to stop the suffering or “bring back ” their loved one. Support during this time which is typically one of the shortest phases is also very helpful

4-Emotional processing, depression and lonliness-As people become “emotionally drained” from the weeks-months of anger, disbelief, and emotional hurt, they slowly begin to wear down.  It is at this point where reality has almost fully sunk-in and the need to “make-sense” of what happened occurs. This is one of the longer stages, encompassing months-year. Although it is never good to be completely alone, this is an important time to “be with your own thoughts” rather than hearing constant encourement which is helpful more in the earlier stages. It is a stage to experience the pain, process the pain and begin to move forward.  Accepting your new life circumstances and accepting the loss.  Moving from grieving being the center of your life, to being just one part of your life as you move toward a brighter future.  Time alone here to process at your own pace is important.

5. Acceptance and moving on-This typically takes about a full year to reach this point but it does not mean that all is forgotten.  At this stage you have successfully experienced the full range of emotional pain, anger, guilt and then processed the emotions at your own pace and ultimately accepted the loss and realized the need to move-on.  As time goes on and your “new” life begins, it gets easier and easier.

So what is the role of facebook in all of this?  Let’s look at where facebook may be helpful.  During the early weeks-months of extreme emotional pain, anger and guilt, encouraging support from as many people as possible is absolutely crucial to getting through this painful time.  In addition to family and friends, facebook allows an entirely different support system to emerge that would otherwise not been available to most folks.  The deceased virtual “family” of friends and colleages are able to post numerous memories and words of encourement which can bring comfort to the one who has lost.  I agree that this function of facebook is a great supplement to traditional support.  However facebook messages or any virtual contact such as email should never replace traditional support. Never replace an in-person visit or a hand-written letter with a facebook message if you know someone well, this is where facebook could make some of the lazier people do more harm than good. The inherently impersonal nature of facebook posts are great as a supplement but not as a replacement to traditional support.

The biggest downside to using facebook during the grieving process is not knowing when to “let go.”  While helpful in the early, acute emotionally painful stages, the later stages of emotional processing may be harmed by ongoing involvement with so many random supportive people.  The emotional process stage requires someone to be essentially “alone with their thoughts” in the sense that this is a time to accept reality, actually feel the emotions and to process the death.  Ongoing re-living the past and visiting a page full of friends and stories can make this process stagnant and ultimately can prevent the progress from processing to acceptance.  It is ok and desirable to spend more time alone, thinking about your feelings and accepting your new life without so much surrounding support, especially if its superficial facebook posting.

So while facebook has potential for helping someone process the early stages of grief and help with some of the painful mental anguish, it can also prevent proper progress through the later stages in which are crucial to emotional processing and acceptance of the loss. Ultimately there are two goals of successful grief: Always feeling you are moving forward and making progress, no matter how slowly of a pace you go.  Second is to never become stagnant and “stuck” in any particular stage.

Like everything in life-moderation is the key

Michael Yasinski M.D