Thursday, April 27, 2006

Real grief, virtual mourning.

April 27, 2006

Rituals of Grief Go Online

By WARREN ST. JOHN

Like many other 23-year-olds, Deborah Lee Walker loved the beach, discovering bands, making new friends and keeping up with old ones, often through the social networking site MySpace.com, where she listed her heroes as "my family, and anyone serving in the military — thank you!"

So only hours after she died in an automobile accident near Valdosta, Ga., early on the morning of Feb. 27, her father, John Walker, logged onto her MySpace page with the intention of alerting her many friends to the news. To his surprise, there were already 20 to 30 comments on the page lamenting his daughter's death. Eight weeks later, the comments are still coming.

"Hey Lee! It's been a LONG time," a friend named Stacey wrote recently. "I know that you will be able to read this from Heaven, where I'm sure you are in charge of the parties. Please rest in peace and know that it will never be the same here without you!"

Just as the Web has changed long-established rituals of romance and socializing, personal Web pages on social networking sites that include MySpace, Xanga.com and Facebook.com are altering the rituals of mourning. Such sites have enrolled millions of users in recent years, especially the young, who use them to expand their personal connections and to tell the wider world about their lives.

Inevitably, some of these young people have died — prematurely, in accidents, suicides, murders and from medical problems — and as a result, many of their personal Web pages have suddenly changed from lighthearted daily dairies about bands or last night's parties into online shrines where grief is shared in real time.

The pages offer often wrenching views of young lives interrupted, and in the process have created a dilemma for bereaved parents, who find themselves torn between the comfort derived from having access to their children's private lives and staying in contact with their friends, and the unease of grieving in a public forum witnessed by anyone, including the ill-intentioned.

"The upside is definitely that we still have some connection with her and her friends," said Bob Shorkey, a graphic artist in North Carolina whose 24-year-old stepdaughter, Katie Knudson, was killed on Feb. 23 in a drive-by shooting in Fort Myers, Fla. "But because it's public, your life is opened up to everyone out there, and that's definitely the downside."

It's impossible to know how many people with pages on social networking sites have died; 74 million people have registered with MySpace alone, according to the company, which said it does not delete pages for inactivity. But a glib and sometimes macabre site called MyDeathSpace.com has documented at least 116 people with profiles on MySpace who have died. There are additions to the list nearly every day.

Last Thursday, for example, a 17-year-old from Vancouver, Wash., named Anna Svidersky was stabbed to death while working at a McDonald's there. As word of the crime spread among her extended network of friends on MySpace, her page was filled with posts from distraught friends and affected strangers. A separate page set up by Ms. Svidersky's friends after her death received about 1,200 comments in its first three days.

"Anna, you were a great girl and someone very special," one person wrote. "I enjoyed having you at our shows and running into you at the mall. You will be missed greatly ... rest in peace."

Tom Anderson, the president of MySpace, said in an e-mail message that out of concern for privacy, the company did not allow people to assume control of the MySpace accounts of users after their deaths.

"MySpace handles each incident on a case-by-case basis when notified, and will work with families to respect their wishes," Mr. Anderson wrote, adding that at the request of survivors the company would take down pages of deceased users.

Friends of MySpace users who have died said they had been comforted by the messages left by others and by the belief or hope that their dead friends might somehow be reading from another realm. And indeed many of the posts are written as though the recipient were still alive.

"I still believe that even though she's not the one on her MySpace page, that's a way I can reach out to her," said Jenna Finke, 23, a close friend of Ms. Walker, the young woman who died in Georgia. "Her really close friends go on there every day. It means a lot to know people aren't forgetting about her."

More formal online obituary services have been available for a number of years. An Illinois company called Legacy.com has deals with many newspapers, including The New York Times, to create online guest books for obituaries the papers publish on the Web, and offers multimedia memorials called Living Tributes starting at $29. But Web pages on social networking sites are more personal, the online equivalent of someone's room, and maintaining them has its complications. Some are frustratingly mundane.

Amanda Presswood, whose 23-year-old friend Michael Olsen was killed in a fire in Galesburg, Ill., on Jan. 23, said none of his friends or family members knew or could guess the password to his MySpace account, which he signed onto the day before he died. That made it impossible to accept some new messages.

"There's a lot of pictures on there that people haven't seen," Ms. Presswood said. "His parents have been coming to me for help because they know I know about the Internet. They even asked if I could hack it so I could keep the page going."

The Walkers correctly guessed the password to their daughter's page, and used it to alert her friends to details of her memorial service. They also used it to access photographs and stories about their daughter they had missed out on.

"It's a little weird to say as a parent, but the site has been a source for us to get to know her better," Mr. Walker said. "We didn't understand the breadth and scope of the network she had built as an individual, and we got to see that through MySpace. It helped us to understand the impact she's had on other people."

At the same time, Ms. Walker's mother, Julie, wrote in an e-mail message, the family was overwhelmed by unsolicited e-mail messages from strangers offering platitudes and seeking to advise them on how to handle their grief. The family found such offerings unwelcome, however well intentioned.

"The grief of our own friends and family is almost more than we can bear on top of our own, and we don't need anyone else's on our shoulders," Mrs. Walker wrote.

Mr. Shorkey said he and his wife remained in touch with their daughter's friends through MySpace. And they visit her Web page daily.

"Some days it makes me feel she's still there," he said. "And some days it reminds me I can never have that contact again."

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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