For the MyS­pace Gen­er­a­tion, a Dif­fer­ent Place to Mourn

The Washington Post Sunday - - Outlook - By Michael Pat­ter­son

My par­ents’ gen­er­a­tion grieved in grave­yards. Peo­ple my age mourn on­line. Less than 24 hours af­ter the Vir­ginia Tech shoot­ings, as peo­ple used our “sub­mit a death” link to send more vic­tim names to my Web site, MyDeathS­, our server crashed. We had just up­dated to a host that was sup­posed to be able to han­dle a much larger daily traf­fic load, but even that wasn’t ca­pa­ble of con­tain­ing the surge, which at one point hit 50,000 vis­i­tors. We had a dozen of the vic­tim pro­files the night of the shoot­ings, of­ten even be­fore ma­jor news or­ga­ni­za­tions re­ported of­fi­cial vic­tim in­for­ma­tion.

Since De­cem­ber 2005, when I started this site, which links to MyS­pace pro­files of the re­cently de­ceased, I’ve come to see first­hand how on­line mourn­ing is cru­cial for griev­ing young peo­ple. At Vir­ginia Tech, the mag­ni­tude of the tragedy is dif­fer­ent from the nearly ev­ery­day calami­ties my Web site reg­is­ters of young peo­ple killed by drunk driv­ers, in­volved in gang vi­o­lence or tak­ing their own lives. But the links to flashan­i­mated, mul­ti­col­ored interactive memo­ri­als serve the same im­por­tant pur­pose for friends and rel­a­tives. Com­ment­ing on a de­ceased friend’s MyS­pace profile is a lot like group ther­apy. Friends of the de­ceased can find some sort of com­fort in read­ing thought­ful mes­sages from oth­ers who are equally up­set.

I’ve thought a lot about the ease of griev­ing on­line as I spend time cod­ing links to the pro­files of the re­cently de­ceased — of­ten peo­ple who are younger than I am at 26. If my friend were to die in an­other coun­try or an­other state and I were un­able to at­tend that friend’s funeral, I would find some mea­sure of com­fort in visit­ing their on­line profile. Many young peo­ple seem to feel this way too. I’ve read again and again when visit­ing the profile of a de­ceased friend, it is as if that friend’s pres­ence can still be felt. His fa­vorite song is still play­ing on the profile and his blog is still there, the inside jokes or ev­ery­day ram­blings easy to ac­cess.

Visit­ing a ceme­tery, to me, would have the op­po­site ef­fect. Touch­ing a cold grave­stone and read­ing the etched let­ters of a close friend’s name seems dis­tant, painful and fi­nal. Visit­ing a de­ceased friend’s on­line profile, you might laugh when click­ing on pho­to­graphs, and it might not feel as if your friend is truly gone. A profile is a snap­shot that peo­ple leave on­line, a look at what they love and hate and are bored by or find funny at one par­tic­u­lar mo­ment. Pro­files, on MyS­pace any­way, can stay up in­def­i­nitely un­less a fam­ily mem­ber re­quests re­moval. A profile is a good sin­gle spot on the Net for peo­ple to re­turn to time and again for com­fort.

I started my Web site af­ter read­ing an ar­ti­cle about two teenage sis­ters who were killed by their fa­ther. I found MyS­pace pages for the girls and read the heart­break­ing post­ings by their friends. I won­dered how many more MyS­pace users had died young. Af­ter read­ing of a few more lo­cal deaths, I started to no­tice that the ma­jor­ity of the deaths were the re­sult of au­to­mo­bile ac­ci­dents and drunk-driv­ing. I founded my site with the hope that it could be an eye-open­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for teenagers and might save a few lives.

Based on the num­ber of vis­i­tors we get per day — be­tween 15,000 and 20,000 unique vis­i­tors and more than 200,000 page views — other peo­ple are also in­ter­ested in see­ing MyS­pace pages that func­tion as obituaries.

We have our crit­ics, peo­ple who e-mail to say that what we’re do­ing is mor­bid or ex­ploita­tive. We also re­ceive many notes of sup­port. Rel­a­tives who have lost loved ones write to say how com­ments from com­plete strangers helped in the griev­ing process. And those who haven’t been di­rectly af­fected by loss write as well. One mother of three teenagers told me she had found her way to MyDeathS­pace and was floored by the num­ber of teens killed in tragic, pre­ventable au­to­mo­bile ac­ci­dents. She said that she sat her three teens down in front of the fam­ily com­puter and made them click through nu­mer­ous pages con­tain­ing deaths of teens the ex­act same age as her own. She said some­thing along the lines of, “Look how pre­cious life is” and made them prom­ise al­ways to wear their seat belts and never drink and drive.

I no longer look up names of the de­ceased on MyS­pace. Just as was the case last week af­ter the tragedy at Vir­ginia Tech, all deaths we link to are sub­mit­ted to the site — by strangers, friends, ac­quain­tances or even fam­ily mem­bers. It’s be­come an au­to­matic re­flex for some to mourn the per­son they’ve lost by con­nect­ing with the profile they left be­hind.


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