A Facebook lesson for churches

More young people are going online to grieve in the company of friends.

Where do young people go to grieve? These days, with more and more churches and temples closing, it's becoming less common to see people going to support groups at church.

After the typhoon in Indonesia, after the deaths of Patrick Swayze and Michael Jackson, after school shootings, and in the wake of suicides, young people in mourning are now turning to social networking sites such as Facebook for support.

This raises the question: Are social networking sites a better spiritual partner than a church, mosque, or temple?

If you search for "In Memory of..." on Facebook more than 100,000 results pop up. Following Michael Jackson's death, more than 150,000 people commented on his Facebook wall. The Virginia Tech tragedy pulled millions of young people to the site.

I have taught bereavement courses for 10 years and recently one of my students shared that he could not talk to his parents about his friend who died in an auto accident because they would cry or immediately change the subject.

But he could visit the world's largest social media website any time of day or night to talk about how much he misses his friend and how helpless he feels.

Chronicling the sadness and the impact on family and friends following a suicide, can also help to deter copycat suicides. For Japanese couples forbidden to marry, leaping from Mount Fuji used to be a common place to end their lives, but when the government erected a sign about the pain it was causing survivors, the suicide rate plummeted. Posting on Facebook could have a similar effect.

Recently I taught a bereavement course online and I feared students would lose the feeling of being in a safe place like my classroom to voice their pain.

I was surprised when students seemed to be even more forthcoming with their emotions and their stories of loss.

Part of the willingness seems to be associated with the fact that Facebook is a place people can say what they truly feel without censoring one's emotions.

They mourn on Facebook because it is where their friends are, and in our mobile society, one's laptop or iPhone seems more of a trusted way to meet friends than in a house of worship.

Grieving can sometimes be a long process that triggers deep questioning. Facebook gives the young a place to write about their beliefs and, also important, to modify them as they grow in their understanding of death.

We only process grief by sharing it with those who understand why we are crying or stumbling for words to express our feelings.

While Internet support for grieving does not replace a hug or a kind human gesture, it does resonate with the online generation.

As churches, mosques, or temples search for ways to make themselves more relevant today, they stand to learn the biggest lesson from social networks and their success at creating a place that elicits healthy grieving.

Diana Nash is the director of the Academic Access Program and teaches death and bereavement courses at Marymount Manhattan College.

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