A user posting on iVillage's Bereavement and Healing forum introduces herself and, in starkly emotional language, describes a personal tragedy: her son's recent death in a car crash. Her sharing of grief, like the 22,000 others on this and other iVillage threads, is just one tiny drop in the waves of emotion surging through the Internet as cyberspace is changing the ways in which we talk about death and major life changes.
A young boy's tragic, accidental death begins Reservation Road, the new film by director Terry George adapted from John Burnham Schwartz's novel. Joaquin Phoenix plays Ethan Lerner, the grieving father; Mark Ruffalo plays the divorced dad who commits the fatal hit and run. In the film, grief, guilt and then anger turn Ethan into a vigilante obsessed with bringing his son's killer to justice. Refusing to hand responsibility for finding him over to the police, he compulsively Googles "hit and run," discovers chat rooms for other victims of such accidents, and then uses legal resource pages to learn about the limits of the legal system and its prosecution of hit and run drivers.
In areas similar to the suburban New England where Reservation Road takes place, there are likely to be regular grief support groups and no shortage of therapists. But, says Dr. John Grohol of Psychcentral.com, a mental health website, "The internet allows people to very easily find a group that's specifically targeted towards their concern." Indeed, Ethan is just one click away from a site like DeadlyRoads.com, a clearinghouse of legal information and online activism related to hit and run crimes. It offers list of hit and run laws, organized by state; "shocking facts" about prosecutorial limits and easy sentencing guidelines; and online memorials for victims.
In Reservation Road, Ethan, late at night, scours the web for information like this. His wife, played by Jennifer Connelly, doesn't understand his obsession. As she sleeps, he trades legal tips and empathy via chats with other grieving parents, each identified only by their dead child's face as an instant messenger icon. "Will this ever end?" types Ethan. "It never ends . . .," the photo of a smiling little girl writes back; " . . . justice helps."
Some professionals realized early on how the Internet could help those in mourning as well as dealing with very intimate and personal emotions. Cendra Lynn, a licensed psychologist and traumatologist, founded Griefnet.org 14 years ago as both a message board and a list-serve. The growth of her site neatly mirrors that of the web as a whole. "One day I got an email from a parent who had lost a child and who felt her grief was different from the other members' grief and who wanted a separate group," she says. "Then the widows asked why they didn't have their own group too . . ." Griefnet.org now has over 50 separate support groups, and this year will add 10 more groups serving those affected by combat and war-related deaths.
"Email and chats are just another medium to express yourself, similar to but different from talking, from therapy or from journaling," Lynn continues. Caryn Dubelko, Director of Community at iVillage, notes that "for many people, [online communication] is the first step in starting to talk about issues that might normally be outside your comfort zone." She sees people using the message boards to "test the waters" of a painful or embarrassing subject, coming to iVillage not quite for therapy but for the social network the site provides. "The boards become very intimate, tight-knit communities," she says. "The key," continues Grohol, "is that lots of people just don't reach out because they don't have anywhere to do so, and there's still a pretty heavy stigma against seeking help for mental health problems. The internet touches people who previously wouldn't bother looking for help or talking about their pain."
The internet is transforming other aspects of grieving as well. In the last few years, commercial businesses have launched sites like MuchLoved.com and Last-Memories.com, which provide online memorial books for family and friends to post their thoughts and feelings. Users can create memorial videos and slideshows, light virtual candles, issue death notices and add information about the deceased's life story. As early as 1998, Griefnet was providing space on its website for such tributes. Now the site hosts hundreds of these pages in which friends and family are remembered through photos and words set against backgrounds customized with designs of starry skies and pale pink hearts. Myspace.com and Facebook.com are also popular in the remembrance culture. Within hours of a Myspace member's death, his or her friends might change their identifying pictures en masse to that of the deceased. There's even Mydeathspace.com, a site devoted to the publication of online Myspace obituaries.
Back on iVillage, a user calling herself "lostmom02" posts to the thread about the woman's deceased son with her own story: "I don't want to get out of bed, why, do what, what is more important than that my son is gone and I will never see him again. He never hurt anyone." Lostmom02 recommends that the original poster find a meeting of the Compassionate Friends network, a support group that assists survivors "toward the positive resolution of grief following the death of a child of any age." A few hours later, a mother calling herself "beautyofserenity" logged in to tell her own tale. "A few days ago I went to his grave and just sat in my car and screamed, it didn't help, I am so mad," she wrote. Addressing her post to no one in particular, she added, "I get through most days by working on a site for my son at Memory-of.com."