Grieving an Online Friend: 8 things you should know about cybergrief
When you saw the title of this post my guess is you had one of two reactions:
- Ah, finally WYG is writing about cybergrief. What took them so long?!?
- Uhhh, cybergrief . . .???
We have mentioned cybergrief and loss before (you may remember it from this post on disenfranchised grief) and it has been on my list to write about for at least two years, but it keeps falling to the back burner. Luckily I have been binge-listening to the Reply All podcast for the last week (I know, I am totally behind the eight ball on that but my podcast schedule has been tight and it just now made it to the top of my list). All the talk of online gaming communities and online forum friendships (and engagements) and weird twitter has made me feel incredibly guilty as a grief blog that we didn’t tackle this topic sooner. If you are feeling as confused as Alex Blumberg during a game of Yes Yes No, fear not. Clarity is on the way in the form of a list of important truths.
8 Things You Should Know To Understand Cybergrief
- Online friendships are friendships. But before we can talk about cybergrief, we do need to establish that cyber relationships are real, meaningful relationships. Yes they are a newer phenomenon in the history of humanity, yes there are things about them that are different that real life relationships, but that does not mean they are not valid, significant relationships. Whether you know it or not, whether you do it or not, people meet other people and build real meaningful relationships online all the time. I am not talking about match.com and okcupid style relationships, where you meet online with a clear intention to meet in real life. I am talking about online relationships you form that remain online. Just like in real life, these online relationships happen all over the place, with varying levels of intimacy. I don’t even know where to begin in listing examples because there are so many, but forums come to mind first. Forums exist around almost every topic and interest you can imagine and people head there looking to connect with people with common interests and find support from others struggling with similar challenges. No surprise, many friendships and even romantic relationships are born in forums. These relationships also form in forum-like social media communities (like reddit and closed facebook groups), online gaming communities, online support groups, online learning communities, and on and on and on.
- Cybergrief is the natural reaction to a cyberloss. Just like grief is our natural reaction to loss, cybergrief is the natural reaction to cyberloss. The grief of any loss is unique to the person grieving and their relationship to the person who died. In some cases, the relationship you had was an entirely online relationship. That may impact the form and shape of the grief but it certainly does not change that it is, in fact, grief. There was a great opinion piece in The Guardian a few years ago written by Edward Collier who was grieving an online friend he knew from a cricket forum. In the piece, he struggles with the question of whether “a virtual friendship is the equal of a ‘real’ one” and what protocol is around attending the funeral. His questions aside, what seems clear reading the article is that Collier was certainly grieving the loss – his friend, George, impacted his life in a real way and that loss was significant. The Guardian tackled this topic again in an article by Nicky Wolfe on the death of a social media friend, echoing some of the same ideas and adding a discussion on the impact of grief in a world where we connect with so many people online and stay in touch with, or at least aware of, people for so much longer because of social media.
- Society can make cybergrievers feel like crap. Way to kick someone while they’re down, society. Sadly, because online friendships are new-ish and not universally understood, some people may act like those relationships didn’t count, that cybergrief isn’t grief, or that someone doesn’t have the right to grieve a cyberloss. If you have felt this way about a cyberloss (or about any loss) you may want to check out our post on disenfranchised grief. A quick example regarding cybergrief: in the article I mentioned above, Edward Collier lays out his emotional struggle about attending the funeral. Though there was a tremendous amount of support in the comments, there were also comments like: “I think it would be nice if you went as a hologram…floating behind the alter” and “No, no, no, no, absolutely not!!!!From what you’ve said, this isn’t even someone you’ve had personal correspondence with, like a pen pal, but a contributor to a forum you’ve bounced remarks off. Why on earth would you want to join his close family at a private funeral where people will be mourning their grief for a lost loved one?”. Needless to say, mocking and minimizing online relationships is still alive and well.
- Societal norms around grieving an online friend are still pretty fuzzy. This undoubtedly contributes to some of the less-than-supportive comments that can be made toward cyber-grievers, but it also can contribute to one’s own confusion as a cyber-griever. Questions can come up like, do I have the right to grieve this loss, should I attend this funeral, should I reach out to the family either online or with a sympathy card. The existence of cyber-relationships is relatively new, so there are no clear societal ‘rules’. As Edward Collier points out, there are norms to tell him what he should wear to the funeral if he attends, but no norms to tell him if he should attend. When there are no norms and expectations to fall back on, it is easy to question your feelings, decisions and behaviors.
- Virtual funerals exist and can be great options for both friends from online, as well as real life friends who can’t (or don’t want) to attend a real life service. Sometimes you have the luxury to consider attending the funeral IRL, but in many instances, the online relationship is with someone across the country or across the world. More and more often families are streaming funerals so friends (of all sorts) can attend. Also, many online communities also host their own funerals and memorials when a member dies. It can be as simple as an online memorial or tribute space to leave comments, or an actual funeral event within a video game where players can virtually attend.
- You have every right to grieve the loss of a cyber friend. We wish this truth was obvious but, based on the questions and comments we’ve seen around the interwebs, that doesn’t seem to be the case. So we’ll be the ones to say it: your relationship was important, your grief is important, and you should give yourself the time and space you need to grieve. If you are coping with this you don’t need to broadcast it if you don’t feel comfortable, but do keep in mind the more we all talk about this the more it will become normalized, understood, and better supported.
- There are some unique challenges when grieving a virtual friend. I can’t list them all here, but there are a few common examples:
- You often don’t learn about the death right away, because the person’s real-life community didn’t know/think to notify you.
- You may or may not have a relationship with their other online friends, or their real life friends. If you don’t, there can be a feeling of isolation that no one else you know is grieving the person.
- You may feel self-conscious talking about it. Though you are distracted at home or work, the fact that it was an online friendship may make it hard to tell a boss, friend, or family member that you are grieving an online friend.
- If you had intentions of someday meeting in real life, but just had not gotten to yet, you may now feel a sense of loss of that hope for the future.
- There is support out there. I wish I could say there is a lot of specific cybergrief support out there. Sadly, there isn’t. But there is some! When we first started WYG one of our first cyber grief-friends was Casey, founder of the site Navigating Cyberloss. Though the site is no longer being updated, four years of her posts about her own experience grieving an online friend and ideas for coping remain. Also, sites like this one and other online grief support spaces have a lot of information and support that can be helpful for anyone grieving, no matter the loss. Though the majority of people in communities like this one are grieving offline losses, they have often experienced the valuable of online relationships and support.
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