Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Social Networking, Bereavement and Grief

Last month my stepson Andrew, who I had the pleasure of knowing since he was 5 years old, died at the tender age of just 21. The grieving process for the loss of one so young and with so much potential is often slow and painful. Many adults find it difficult to approach the parents who have lost children, so it was no surprise that visits to us from Andrew’s friends were few. They too were struggling to come to terms with what was probably their first loss of a friend their own age.

However, comfort came from an unexpected source – Web 2.0 or to be more specific, Facebook, instant messaging and tagging.

Andrew was on Facebook but of course his parents were not included as his friends! One of Andrew’s friends kindly gave us his own e-mail and password and so we were able to access Andrew’s profile and messages. The messages his friends posted on Facebook were of enormous comfort to us: they wrote to him directly, as if Andrew was able to read the messages. Many messages were short (“RIP Bruv”, etc) and were sadly repeated a few days later in messages left for youngsters killed in London. However, others were longer and more intimate. Andrew’s friends were clearly hurting and were at ease in expressing their loss and praising his life.
Examples of the sort of messages left for Andrew can be found on the dontstayin website which crops up later under the heading of "Tagging".
Interestingly, when we met some of this “Google generation” face to face they were far more guarded in their expressions of loss.

Instant Messaging
Andrew’s account on MSN opened automatically when the PC was switched on. This gave us our first opportunity to use instant messaging and provided us with our first chance to talk directly to Andrew’s friends. Again this was an enormous comfort as friends reluctant to come to our house were more than happy to talk about our son and ask about our well-being. I’m poor when it comes to the text speak of young people but they were patient as I demonstrated that I was as about as cool as Ken Barlow when it came to MSN. Again, their messages of sympathy and stories about Andrew were heartfelt and very touching.

What a source of comfort this turned out to be! One of Andrew’s favourite sites http://www.dontstayin.com/ is a forum for dedicated dance music enthusiasts or ravers. It contains announcements of events, forums and photos. Those who had uploaded photos onto the site had also tagged them with the names of the people in the photos (called "spotters"). Andrew had probably spotted and tagged himself on many of the pics. All we had to do was enter Andrew’s nickname into the search box and behold, dozens of photos of Andrew and a side to him we hardly ever saw. The sight of him having such a good time in so many photos undoubtedly contributed to the positive way we are trying to assess his life. It may have been short but God it was full. You can see for yourself here.

Young people are exceptionally sensitive and thoughtful and are far more comfortable expressing themselves via a pc than face-to-face.
If people communicate in text speak who cares? It is the message which is important.
Web 2.0 applications are every bit as legitimate to the “google generation” as a means of communication as the telephone was to our generation.

As a grieving couple we are so thankful that these applications exist as they have been a real source of comfort to us through what has been and still is a terrible time.