Social networking Web sites become an outlet for grief

Sydney Schwartz

Jim Fitzgerald finds comfort when he visits his daughter Molly’s grave and reads a journal his family leaves there for friends to sign.

He also finds solace when he logs on to Molly’s MySpace and Facebook pages and sees messages his daughter’s friends still send to her as if she were still alive.

Molly Fitzgerald died two years ago at age 14.

Friends say the social networking sites they used to keep in touch with Molly when she was alive help them feel closer to her after death.

It’s become the modern way to mourn in our wired society.

Seventy-three million Americans visited MySpace last month, including 10.2 million ages 12 to 17. Facebook had 41.4 million visitors, including 4.3 million teenagers, according to marketing research company comScore.

When teens die, their online profiles remain active, and friends and family use the sites to express their grief. Some continue to post messages years after a teen has died.

Teens say the sites allow them to remember, give them a place to share their emotions, see what everyone is thinking, and, in a sense, communicate with the deceased.

“You can actually look at what she was, remember what she was and look at how many people do miss her,” said Laurel Hibbard of Stoughton, Mass., a friend of Molly’s. “Every time I write ... I always end up just writing and smiling.”

Molly Fitzgerald created a MySpace page before she died. Her sister, Caitlin, and friends have since created pages on Facebook in her memory.

Hibbard, 18, said she posts on one of Molly’s sites when she’s missing her or stressed out. She last posted on her MySpace page in January, during her high school midterms.

Counselors and funeral directors say social networking sites can be helpful for grieving teens and the messages they post can be a continuing source of comfort for parents.

Online grieving is also becoming more mainstream.

Funeral directors have added message boards on their Web sites for mourners. They say it is especially advantageous for those who cannot travel for funerals.

Bob Biggins of Magoun-Biggins Funeral Home of Rockland, Mass., and his partner, his 28-year-old son, have created their own Facebook account and a profile for the funeral home.

“It’s become such a mode of communication for this new generation,” Biggins said. “It’s helpful, in addition to the face-to-face handshake and hug.”

Ed Jones, funeral director at Downing Cottage Funeral Chapel in Hingham, Mass., said his generation would have written a sympathy card.

“I know this is the new way. This is the way it’s going to be,” he said.

When a Facebook member dies, the company puts the profile in a memorial section, hiding certain parts of the profile from public view. If a loved one asks that the profile be removed, it will be disabled, a company spokeswoman said.

Julie Currier, 18, of Hanover, Mass., said reading all of the messages and memories on her friend’s page, “Kelsey Prinsen is in our hearts,” makes her feel good.

Prinsen, 17, a Hanover High School junior, died in April 2007. Her memorial group has 789 members.

“You can see how much people care about each other. It’s like a whole support group,” she said. “Kelsey was a great person. She should be remembered in any way possible.”

Lori Mahoney of Scituate, Mass., whose son Timothy was killed in a car crash in February, said she and her husband took solace in the condolences they received through the online guests books on (Making everlasting Memories) and, memorial sites linked to newspaper Web sites.

Timothy has a Facebook site, but his mother had trouble accessing it.

“It’s meaningful to hear what people have to say and to hear that he was special and won’t be forgotten,” Mahoney said. “Certainly those things meant a great deal to us at the time.”

Jim Fitzgerald said he doesn’t check Molly’s MySpace page as often as he used to but still finds comfort in knowing her friends think about her.

“They’re still reaching out to her in the way that they were accustomed to doing,” he said. “That keeps her alive for us. ... I don’t think they realize how important it is to us that they still care.”

Sydney Schwartz may be reached

The Patriot Ledger