To Dawn Burke, Facebook had only been a simple Web site on which her children used to post funny pictures and chat with friends. But when her daughter died, it became a way for her to reconnect with her child and begin the long, uncertain process of healing.
Dana Burke, a sophomore pre-pharmacy major at Temple, died last March of brain stem glioma – a brain tumor – at the age of 20. She was diagnosed in October 2005 when she began experiencing double vision.
After appointments with an eye doctor failed to improve the situation, an MRI revealed the horrible truth.
After extensive radiation and chemotherapy, mostly while still attending classes at Temple, Dana passed away on March 28.
“I started using Dana’s laptop,” Burke said. “I went on her e-mail to see what she had and forwarded information to people who didn’t know she had passed away.”
Burke began to notice that many Facebook e-mail notifications were arriving. She clicked on the links and found dozens of wall posts from her friends.
“I was a bit tearful at first,” Burke said. “I was happy to see they were still keeping her in their hearts and prayers.”
Burke is one of many people across the nation who has begun to utilize social networking sites like Facebook as a way to grieve a deceased loved one.
After her initial experience, Burke continued to log onto her daughter’s Facebook page a couple times a week to read the messages that her friends would send her. And the messages have yet to cease.
“It’s almost like having someone to talk to, even though she may not be there,” Burke said. “They could still talk to her. I appreciated it.”
After a summer of continuous wall postings, and Burke reading every one of them, she decided to do something on Sept. 22 she hadn’t done before – make her own post. It read, “To all of Dana’s family and friends, thank you for continuing to keep Dana in your hearts and minds. Love, Dana’s mom.”
“It took me a while to figure out what I was doing, you know, how to reply,” Burke said. “I just felt compelled to write something. I probably was a little down that day. It was just so touching to read the things I was reading.”
Burke said using Facebook helps her to reflect on her daughter, even by seeing what is new in her friends’ lives.
“It’s almost like having an open diary,” Burke said. “It’s good for when you don’t have a photo album handy, just go to the page and look there. Look at some happy times.”
Burke’s son, Darren, a sophomore at Saint Leo University in Florida, said he appreciates the fact that he and friends can still post on Dana’s Facebook wall.
“I was talking with my son about it. According to how they speak, he thought it was ‘hot’ that [her friends] still remember her,” Burke said. “I tell my son if he ever has a problem with talking, just put it in words. It’s a good therapy for him.”
“I knew right then that she didn’t make it”
Just 19 days after Temple students began remembering Dana on her Facebook wall, the students at Virginia Tech University started doing the same. A shooting at the school on April 16 left 32 dead. Maxine Turner was one of them.
Tina Diranian, 22, a recent graduate from George Mason University, was working at her new job at a technology development company the day of the shootings. A news alert came across her e-mail reporting a shooting at Virginia Tech. Her mind immediately jumped to Turner, her close friend since kindergarten and a Virginia Tech student. Diranian took off work to go home.
“I put on the TV and it just stayed on for 20 hours,” Diranian said. “I got confirmation from a friend down there that she was in the German classroom, and I knew what had happened. It wasn’t like her to not return phone calls. I knew right then that she didn’t make it.”
On April 17, Diranian created a memorial group for Turner on Facebook. Diranian is close with Turner’s parents and spent a lot of her childhood in their house.
“I wanted to be the one to support them. It helped her parents in the coming days,” Diranian said.
Diranian said Facebook had been instrumental at the time of the shootings because information was coming from so many sources that it helped all of Turner’s friends to communicate on what was happening. Since Turner had friends all over the country, Diranian thought Facebook was the perfect place to pool all the information, including details on the memorial service. She also noted that not everyone was going to be able to attend the service, but still wanted the chance to grieve.
“We could all support each other this way,” Diranian said. “We were all scattered around the country, but this was a way we could be together.”
As of Nov. 26, Diranian’s group titled “In honor of Maxine Turner” had 1,178 members.
“It was amazing when I went through all the people,” Diranian said. “The people from places like Canada or Florida didn’t really know Maxine, but it was heartwarming that people could still grieve for someone they didn’t know.”
The Facebook group has also helped Diranian with her own healing.
“It brought back so many memories that I forgot about – nicknames that I wanted to forget. But reading them again made me cry for a really long time,” Diranian said. “It’s still really hard to read it because she can’t be next to me laughing about it.”
“Facebook is organic … It’s alive”
Dr. Sara Corse, a grief counselor at Philadelphia’s Council for Relationships, said the live nature of the Internet and new media like Facebook provides healthy avenues for people to grieve.
“What the Internet does for people is it allows, at any time or place that suits the person’s emotional schedule, access to information and other people’s feelings about something,” Corse said. “It’s a way people can move out of social isolation.”
“I’m not the kind of person that will say how I feel. I can’t get the words out,” Diranian said. “Writing it down was a lot more therapeutic.”
Corse said that someone grieving might not be able to move past the fact that a loved one is gone, but that the idea of a Facebook page can help curb that obstacle.
“Facebook is organic,” Corse said. “It’s alive, it’s not dead.”
But these “living” pages became threatened not long after the Virginia Tech shootings. Prior to the attacks, it was Facebook’s policy to take down profiles of deceased members. But after a strong outcry from the friends and family of the 32 Virginia Tech victims, Facebook revised its policy in mid-May.
In an e-mail statement to The Temple News, Brandee Barker, Facebook’s director of corporate communications, said, “When it comes to our attention that a user has passed away, we put the profile in a Memorial State. In the Memorial State, certain profile sections and features are hidden from view to protect the privacy of the departed. We encourage users to utilize groups and group discussions to mourn and remember the deceased.”
Diranian said she’s happy Facebook keeps pages of the deceased up.
“Some people never want to let go. I want to go to her page and get the little that I don’t have anymore,” she said.
Turner’s page was removed for a short period in the months following the shooting, but was restored in late August.
“When I saw [Facebook] took it down, it was like they were taking her away from me,” Diranian said. “I’m not ready to let go yet.”
Jesse North can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.