Mourning in the digital age

Online Grief and Loss Explained

Death has gone digital, and so has grief.

Do you remember your last tweet or Facebook status? No? Well, the Internet will, even after you have passed away. Your family and friends have a new set of digital tools to grieve over your death because your life has been recorded online.

Tragedies in the digital age

In area 2012 tragedy, Jessica Ghawi was gunned down during a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises.

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This was Jessica Ghawi's last tweet before she died.

Jessica's Story

For Jessica Ghawi’s friends and family, their digital grieving began on the 20th of July, 2012. One of the 12 victims of the Aurora Shooting in Colorado, Ghawi tweeted her excitement to a friend about going to watch ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ at the midnight screening. 30 minutes later Jessica was killed after suffering gunshots to the leg and head.

A month before the Batman Massacre, the aspiring sportscaster survived a separate shooting at the Eaton Center in Toronto. She blogged about the event and the ‘empty, almost sickening feeling’ it left in her chest. That blog post and the last few tweets she sent out before her death have been viewed by thousands globally. Her wit, her insights and her personality are captured digitally and preserved for friends, family and well-wishers who have never met Ghawi.

Online Outpouring after Jessica's Death

In honour of her memory, people used the hashtag #RIPJessica to memorialise her death on Twitter

Outpourings from the Internet grieving Jessica Ghawi's death

After her death, Ghawi’s followers banded together and #RIPJessica trended, a fitting tribute as Ghawi was an active and engaged Twitter user. Her brother, Jordan Ghawi, blogged about the moments after her death and the establishment of an Official Jessica Redfield Sports Journalism Scholarship Fund in her name.

The outpouring of support for my family is overwhelming. Hearing from people from all over the world. My family thanks you. Let us continue to focus on the victims.Jordan Ghawi

Her friend and fellow sports-writer, Jesse Spector, wrote a tribute to her on sportingnews.com. He lamented the loss of a friend that, while their relationship occurred mostly in a digital space, was very dear to him.

It was pure silliness, sharply sarcastic and made me smile. Only now, her shout of "MOVIE DOESN'T START FOR 20 MINUTES" is just haunting.Jesse Spector

More Last Messages Left Online

Below are stories of people who left messages online before they died. These include final tweets, tumblr posts, photos, forum posts and blogs.

Ervin McKinness

Ervin McKinness, aged 21, died on the 2nd of September 2012 in Ontario, Canada. He tweeted “Drunk af going 120 drifting corners #F***It YOLO” 21 minutes before the car he was in ran a red light, lost control and crashed into someone’s backyard, killing all 5 within. YOLO, popularised by the hip hop artist Drake in the song ‘The Motto’, means ‘You Only Live Once’.

At 1:20 am, McKinness, @Ink2flashyy, tweeted his final tweet: "Driving tweeting sipping the cup f*** yolo I'm turning it up." The young rapper, going by Inkyy, had reportedly just been signed to a label. Four of the twenty-something year old males (including McKinness) were pronounced dead on the scene; the other, 23 year old Marquell Bogan, died not long after in a nearby hospital.

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Declan Sullivan

Indiana, USA, 20 year old Declan Sullivan worked as a cameraman for the Notre Dame football team, filming the team’s practice session from a scissor lift platform 12 metres from the ground. On October 27th, 2010, Sullivan tweeted "Gusts of wind up to 60mph, well today will be fun at work ... I guess I've lived long enough” at 3:22 pm, followed by “holy f*** holy f*** this is terrifying” at 4:06 pm, less than half an hour before the scissor lift toppled over at 4:50 pm.

He was rushed to Memorial Hospital in South Bend where he later died. The team’s coach, Brian Kelly, issued a statement 'Our thoughts and prayers go out to Declan's family and friends” while a memorial mass was led by the Notre Dame President. A memorial was erected not far from the spot where Sullivan died.

Ryan Dunn

Ryan Dunn, 34, of Jackass famously posted a picture of himself drinking on his Twitter @ryandunntv on the 20th June 2012, hours before he drove his 2007 Porsche 911 GT3 through a guardrail in PA, USA.The car flew past roughly 40 metres of trees before hitting the guardrail and exploding, killing both Dunn and his passenger, friend Zachary Hartwell. Dunn was found to have a blood alcohol level over twice the legal limit.
Roger Ebert was one of the first to publicly condemn the stuntman for his actions, tweeting about the accident. Dunn’s co-host Bam Margera responded to the comment with rage, “I have been crying for a full day and piece of s**t Roger Ebert has the gall to put in his 2 cents”. Ebert replied on his website with “I [...] regret that my tweet about the event was considered cruel. It was not intended as cruel. It was intended as true.” #RIPRyanDunn was a top trending topic on the day of his death.

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Alexandra Kogut

Alexandra Kogut , 18, was brutally beaten to death, reportedly by her longterm boyfriend, Clayton Whittemore, 21, on the 29th of September 2012. The two high school sweethearts exchanged happy tweets in the week leading up to her death:

  • Whittemore: "Saturday can't come sooner enough."
  • Kogut: “So excited for @Whittemore21 to come to Brockport Saturday and bring me half moons”

The last tweet went out at 12:13 am on the day of her murder, shortly before police suspect the first year communications major student was murdered. She was found in her dorm room at the State University of New York (SUNY) at around three in the morning. Whittemore was arrested an hour later but has since pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder. Kogut’s twitter account has since been turned private.

Elizabeth Nass & Rose Mayr

Elizabeth Nass and Rose Mayr, both 19, were sitting near the train tracks, drinking in secret, when a CSX train carrying coal derailed and killed them both. On the 21st August 2012, the two young women climbed to the walkway beside the train tracks in Ellicott City, US, and tweeted a photo of their feet dangling over the edge. Later, 21 of the freight train’s 80 cars derailed and toppled over, sending tonnes of coal below to crush a group of cars and the two teens. They died asphyxiated beneath the coal, but were not actually hit by train itself. The two train conductors were uninjured.

Nass went to the James Madison University in Virginia while Mayr attended the University of Delaware. Both Nass and Mayr’s twitter accounts have now been blocked from public access.

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It has been a natural progression for people to share their feelings and experiences on social media the same way they share all their other experiences. The access to digital tools is giving us new ways to mourn death and loss.

Kristie West, a Grief Specialist based in London, said that collective grief can happen on a much larger and much more open scale through social media. Sharing thoughts and feelings with millions of people around the world can now be easily done with social media, which also provides a platform for interaction between them. In response to such deaths and disaster, solidarity and support are often shown through a formation of Facebook groups, as an example, bringing a community connection.

How do people grieve online?

West also said that social media has changed the way we connect with others and it is transforming the method of how people express and share their grief in the event of a death. With social media, she believes that people can be more open about their experiences. It also puts the topics of death and grief in others more often, which is really important, as it adds more awareness surrounding death.

Many popular social media websites are able to memorialise a person’s profile after they die, or provide the opportunity to create a shrine to a lost loved one, for example:

A new set of tools to grieve online:

  • Grief Forums - Just like you can join the Facebook or the Pinterest online community, there are a number of social networks dedicated to bringing together mourners who want to memorialise a loved one, share memories and share their grief experience to help them deal with their loss.
  • Online Memorial - There are also dedicated websites which will allow you to create a digital memorial of your loved one, archive photos, profiles, letters and documents, as well as access their final message. This creates a place for people to remember their loved ones.
  • Pinterest Shrine - Allows loved ones to pin photos and letters of a person who has passed away, to create a visual memorial online.
  • Tweet to Remember - Memories can be shared and loved ones memorialised through Twitter with the use of hashtags, allowing friends and family to track memories or photos posted about a person.
  • MySpace Death - This is a catalogue of MySpace users who have passed away, and offers a forum and archive where loved ones can go to share their grief and work through their experiences.
  • Facebook Memorial - Facebook is able to turn an ordinary profile page into a memorial page after the person dies, to allow friends to continue to post messages of love and support for the family, while removing the deceased person’s wall posts and contact details. Another option is to create a private Facebook group which is accessible by invitation only, to allow friends and family to share memories, messages and photos.

How grief is handled on social media

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Other examples of online grief in the modern day

Digital mourning is giving us more and more unique ways to express the feelings of grief when we lose a loved one. The cases below show how this has changed.

Skype memorials

In Chester Township, PA, USA, the Hunt Irving Funeral Home held it’s first skype service for Ronald H. James. The idea evolved from the deceased’s sister, Reverend Dr. Zenobia A. James, having used the technology to undertake a Penn State University course by distance.

Relatives from around the country, California, Illinois and Columbia were able to participate in the memorial without having to incur travel expenses, time away from work and family and to pay their last respects without the sense or urgency and frantic rush of last-minute travel. With smartphone offering the Skype platform, we may see this becoming a norm at funeral services.

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Blog posts from the deceased

Derek K. Miller. a prolific blogger, detailed his battle with cancer until the day of his death. In his own words, “I was born on June 30, 1969 in Vancouver, Canada, and I died in Burnaby on May 3, 2011, age 41, of complications from stage 4 metastatic colorectal cancer. We all knew this was coming.”

The post goes on to detail how he met his wife, his thoughts on death and the grandeur, or lack of, inherent in it. Family, friends and fans can read through the archive of his posts, all written in a casual and conversational tone, to relive the man and his life, from discovering he was diabetic in 1991 to listening to Adele’s 27 album a few months before his death.

Today, it is possible that people find themselves memorialised digitally in some form in the future.

Online Celebrity Death Tributes

The following stories show how the death of public figures and celebrities ignite social media channels. Millions of fans pay their respect through blogging, videos, tweets and heartfelt messages.

Michael Jackson

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The King of Pop, Michael Jackson needs no introduction. He has become a household name and icon to millions. His death, at only 50 years old, on the 25th June 2009 shocked the world and distraught fans over the whole globe turned to the internet for comfort. Web usage jumped to 4.2 million global users per minute, over double the norm. 8/10 of the top albums, 8/10 of the top music videos and 5/10 of the top songs on iTunes were his. 23% of all tweets on Twitter were MJ themed and he was trending in 9/10 of the top Twitter topics.

Jackson’s memorial on the 9th July was watched by over 31 million Americans and 9.7 million streamed the service from CNN.com alone, global web traffic for the event’s duration rising from 19-33%. Fans flocked to his Walk of Fame star and smothered it with flowers.

Whitney Houston
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The famed ‘Bodyguard’ star and soulful singer Whitney Houston, aged 48, died on the 11th of February 2012. Various artists performed in her honour at her funeral ranging from R. Kelly and Alicia Keys to Stevie Wonder, Jennifer Hudson performing the deceased star’s iconic ‘I Will Always Love You’ in tribute at the 54th Grammy Awards.

Fans of the starlet left flowers en masse outside the Beverly Hilton Hotel where she passed away from an accidental drowning, likely resulting from cocaine and various other drugs use. Over 2 million tweets and retweets were sent out in the first hour after the news broke, #IWillAlwaysLoveYou trending on the microblogging social media site. YouTube was flooded with tribute videos and heartfelt goodbyes from fans to Whitney.

Heath Ledger
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On the 22nd January, 2008, Heath Ledger was found unconscious by his masseuse and his housekeeper on his bed in his loft apartment in SoHo. The award-winning actor had died and paramedics were unable to revive him. Autopsy reports found the cause of death to be an accidental toxic combination of prescription drugs commonly associated with depression, anxiety, insomnia, pain and treatment of the common cold.

The aftermath of his death was felt by many, but largely by Australians for their loss of an iconic Aussie-boy (Ledger was born in Perth), with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd publicly announcing a memorial. His work in ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ (his second-to-last film) was critically and publicly well received, earning him posthumous a Golden Globe and Academy Award. A few ads for the film were pulled in light of his death. He has many YouTube video tributes and a memorial website, Heathheathens.net.

Princess Dianna

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Lady Di passed away on the 31st August 1997 after a fatal car crash at the Pont De l’Alma road tunnel in Paris that killed her, her companion Dodi Fayed, and their driver Henri Paul. The only survivor was their bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones. Despite rumours of M16 involvement, the crash was deemed accidental in 2008 due to reckless driving on behalf of the inebriated driver.

It’s estimated that 2.5 billion people worldwide tuned in to watch her funeral at Westminster Abbey. It’s no surprise that the public has continued showing their support for the ‘People’s Princess’ online. There are numerous websites created in her honour and Youtube videos to mourn her passing. One video features the musical rendition of ‘Candle in the Wind’ by Elton John rewritten specifically for the princess’ funeral service.

Steve Jobs

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Apple founder and head, Steve Jobs, passed away on October 5th, 2011, after an ongoing battle with pancreatic cancer. His death caused a massive stir on the internet, an unprecedented 10,000 tweets circled the loss going out every second during the height of the news. It was a global tragedy, only 68% of those tweets being in English. 11 of the top Twitter trends were Jobs related, including #iSad and inspirational quotes from Jobs flooded Facebook and Twitter.

Job’s biography by Walter Isaacson flew up 418 spots on Amazon’s sales ranks to nab the number one position, an increase of 41,700% in pre-sales. The book’s publish date was brought forward four full weeks to accommodate the influx of buyers.

Beware: Hoax Memorials

Not every celebrity death is well received. And not every celebrity death is even real.

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The celebrity death hoax is not a novel phenomenon - Steve Burns and Scott Baio have been ‘dead’ since 1997 and Bill Cosby has ‘died’ no less than four times. Morgan Freeman’s particular iteration of the fad began on the Facebook page ‘R.I.P. Morgan Freeman’ which has over 60,000 likes. He is only the latest in the morbid internet meme, and likely not the last. Freeman’s representative had to publicly announce “Morgan is alive and well, and joins the long list of actors who have been victimised by this hoax” to E Online.

Facebook pages about Morgan Freeman now have written in the ‘About’ section “He's still alive and well, stop believing what you see on the internet.”

With the internet being an open forum, these hoaxes crop up often and repeatedly. Essentially, they are harmless and easily dissipated. Less so are the cases where online memorials were 'trolled'. R.I.P Trolls are a next level in the mockery of death online.

Warning! Beware of those who prey on online memorials

The anonymous nature of the internet has created the perfect environment for harassment, where people known as ‘trolls’ make insensitive comments about other users to spread hate. Unfortunately the attacks from trolls are not limited to the profiles and pages of living users, and some trolls will even make these distasteful and hurtful comments on memorial websites and the profile pages of the deceased.

The hurt and despair felt by the family and victims of a RIP Troll is hard to imagine – on top of the grief and loss they are feeling, they see hateful comments and obscene photos posted by strangers to incite and spread anger. In the case of RIP Trolls on Facebook, the behaviour can be reported to the Facebook team, who will remove the offensive posts and disable the Troll’s account. The site also relies on self regulation and careful moderation by the page owners. Self regulation through careful moderation by page owners and other users is also very important as it is the most direct and fastest form of treatment against Trolls.

How to protect your memorial pages

While the recommended course of action for dealing with Trolls is to ignore and ‘not feed the Trolls'.

Here are some simple tips to consider when protecting a loved one's profile:

  • Memorialise their page - this will ensure that only friends and family can see and comment on the page.
  • If you want to create a page, make it private - try to avoid creating a public page as these are open to trolls.
  • If you do make a public page - monitor the posts very carefully and implement a comment moderation system where possible.

Crackdown on memorial vandalism

The biggest threats to public memorial pages on the internet are R.I.P Trolls, but their distasteful behaviour is not without consequence. The Internet is not a wholly unregulated forum for abuse. In many countries, laws and systems have been put in place to ensure that this kind of attitude is not tolerated.

Chief among these forward-thinking nations is the U.K. with their Communications Act 2003. The legislation has already been used in the latter half of 2011 to try one R.I.P troll who defaced the memorial page of the 15 year old Worcestershire teen, Natasha MacBryde. He posted insensitive comments, calling her a ‘spoiled little slut’, despite never having met MacBryde, and even created a video mocking MacBryde’s manner of death; she jumped in front of a train and the vandal’s video, ‘Tasha the Tank Engine’, mocked that by using MacBryde’s face on the children’s character, Thomas the Tank Engine. The page became a popular spot for other trolls, inciting comments like ‘I heard she caught the midnight train going no where’ and images such as a Simpsons screenshot of Lisa’s valentines card saying “I Choo- Choo- Choose You” with a picture of a train.

The troll responsible for the video was tried for the MacBryde comments, but also for three separate cases of trolling memorial pages. Lauren Drew, 14, Hayley Bates, 16 and Jordan Cooper, 14, were all victims of R.I.P Trolls, their families understandably distraught by the comments but consoled in that the perpetrator was sentenced to 18 weeks. Despite the defence citing his Aspergers Syndrome and alcoholism as contributing factors, he was also given an Asbo barring him from any social media access for five years.

A person is guilty of an offense if s/he sends by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character

-Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003, Improper use of public electronic communications network

There are multiple cases of R.I.P Trolls who have been tried under this particular section of the legislation. The previous year, in Manchester, another troll was tried and sentenced for posting insensitive comments, defaced images and sexual slurs on the memorial pages of Jade Goody (a reality TV star who died of cancer). In this case, the prosecuting lawyer commented on the defendants attitude: ‘The defendant told police that he finds the comments amusing. He said it causes reaction”.

Another case of trolling concerns April Jones, the 5 year old girl with cerebral palsy who went missing from her yard in Wales in October, 2012. The comment, likening the missing girl to the Madeleine McCann case, was posted during the height of the search for the young girl, inciting the 215,000 members of the Facebook page to anger. He, being from Lancashire in the U.K, was charged under the Communications Act 2003, section 127, and sentenced to 12 weeks in an Young Offender Institution.

Social media and the internet can be used for wonderful purposes, but there do exist those who will abuse the forum to troll. Making hurtful and abusive comments online and on memorial websites, saying things they would never say to a person’s face, is cowardly behaviour and it won’t go unpunished.

Trial by Social Media:

How online mourning can have an impact on court cases

While online memorials can help friends and family of a lost loved one find closure, recent cases have shown the power that these memorial sites have in jeopardising court proceedings as online anger surges against the accused.

In Australia, a teenager by the name of Thomas Kelly, 18, was murdered in July at Kings Cross, the well-known Sydney red light district. Kelly was walking with his girlfriend when he got struck in the head by Kieran Loveridge, 17, just after 10 PM. Loveridge, having gone on a rampage before crossing paths with Kelly, assaulted an 18-year-old boy just before and two other men after within the same area. All attacks were unprovoked and occurred in just under an hour. While the other victims survived Kelly tragically passed away two days later. Kelly’s case quickly sparked strong opinions across different social media networks. Loveridge’s pictures sprang up all over Facebook and Twitter with accusations of ‘murderer’ and “monster” along with them. An anonymous user was reported after opening a Twitter account under the name ‘Kieran Loveridge’, sending photos of the accused to journalists and media organisations.

Trial by social media, as they call it, caused a red flag amongst Australian legal experts as it posed a threat to criminal cases. It is important to remember that the accused has the right of presumption of innocence and for a fair trial. Associate Professor Alex Steel, from the University of New South Wales’ (UNSW) law school, said that people publishing comments online on social media networks without thinking of the consequences can be problematic.

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Leigh Sales, ABC1 anchor, tweeted a reminder to her followers regarding Thomas Kelly’s trial
In contrast, University of Sydney’s Associate Professor David Rolph, said that in the eyes of the law, particularly when a trial is in motion, non-traditional media channels will not be distinguished from that of traditional media. So, it is possible that users could be held legally responsible for the comments posted on their social media accounts. Dr Rolph also stated that when a channel facilitates conducts such as interference with a person’s right to a fair trial, defamation, breach of confidence, or invasion of privacy, the legal system may view the website that carries the content or the user to be liable.

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A tweet by Victoria Police, in the light of a recent murder case with an ongoing trial

Future of Online Memorials

Your life is transitioning online, therefore it is important to prepare for your digital death, in the same way you would for a physical death. Plan the legacy you want to leave behind for your family to remember you by, and the thoughts, experiences and images you want to share with future generations.

Plan your digital death

As you consider how your digital self is going to live on through changes in technology, communication and data storage, consider how your family will memorialise you, and how your friends and family will continue to interact and remember you after you’re gone.

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