The grief of losing an online friend

Grief in online communities – What do you do when you lose a friend you’ve never met?

It’s odd how we socially construct ways to live our lives. The invisible to-do or how-to lists that allow the word ‘should’ to creep into our psyche. When I go and talk or teach groups of people about ideas of grieving in non-linear, fluid ways of riding the waves of loss there is often a collective sigh at being released from thinking there is one way to react to unexpected life events.

It’s virtually impossible to live our lives without some connection to others via the net. Whether we work from home, belong to internet forums or closed Facebook groups, write a blog, study online or we’re just someone who prefers to connect via Skype; when someone from within that community is lost the place for that grief can become muddled. In that muddle the feelings that come can be difficult to explain to others and then we wonder where is the space for our grief, our chance to put our hand up and say we miss someone and that they mattered. My friend Michelle asked me that question this morning – about ways to look after friends in online communities when a close friend passes away. How to honour the feelings that bubble up from under the surface…

For those of us that exist predominantly online, our lives might be viewed as skewing from the norm – the friendships formed by the sharing of words and images can be profound. When a loss occurs peoples grief isn’t readily embraced ‘but you didn’t really know them…’ you might hear from others, ‘its not like you were friends’. The lack of understanding about the bonds that form can mean the loss is disenfranchised, marginalized, not acknowledged. When our pain isn’t heard people feel confused and alone, unsure where to tuck it away. They find it hard to explain to others in real life why the sadness is unending, why they need time to come to terms with what has happened.

So when Michelle asked me what resources were around I had a bit of a look at the papers I had, the journals online and the books that sit on my bookcase. Kathleen Gilbert wrote a lovely book in 2010 ‘Death, Dying and Grief in an online universe: For counselors and educators’ She explains that the communities perceptions of online relationships often sit on a very basic level, such as via dating sites or with teenagers connected to each other with pictures and short exchanges but the development of community through like-minded individuals coming together has the capacity to draw people together – regardless of the geographical distances between them. That the connections are indeed real and valid therefore our responses to loss are amplified in the same ways that losing a close friend who lives a short drive away might be.

So how can people honour that loss, the loss of a friend online? How might they explain it to others that is both normal and expected to feel the loss of someone you held dear within your own community:

  • Acknowledge the power of the keyboard and its remarkable qualities to summarise    how we are feeling in ways that might not have flowed so if we had to speak them.
  • Gilbert (2010) says we are ‘more likely to self disclose more personal information quickly than in offline relationships’ making those connections feel more ‘intimate more quickly than relationships in the physical world’ which in turn makes those grief reactions more profound.
  • Remember that geographical limitations are present but the complexity and the depth of the relationships are the same, if not more, than in ‘real life’
  • Find people (more commonly online friends) to discuss your grief with. Respondents to Gilberts study of online grief reactions found that people found solace in being with like-minded individuals. The study found that people felt they had the ‘right’ to mourn publicly when a ‘real life’ friend was lost but their grief for an online relationship was done in private because of the lack of understanding around the depth of that connection.
  • Find ways to honour your friend – establish a Facebook page for reflections, find ways to share funny thoughts, memories, with others in the online community.
  • The ritual of attending a funeral or being able to pay respects to the family left behind can be difficult for those connected online. Be creative in the need to honour those customary markers of grief – perhaps ask the family to share images or excerpts from the service. Collect funds to send flowers etc.
  • Be kind to yourself. If we engage in the idea that there is a hierarchy of mourning where certain people are expected to be more upset than others then it invalidates our own feelings. When we are connected to another we are invited into their world and that relationship can be complex and unique. Mourn the unique connection you had rather than deciding who is allowed to grieve “the most.”

Some of my most treasured friends have been made through blogging and speaking online with others. I don’t feel one step removed because of the tyranny of physical distance between us, I just focus on the chance to chat and laugh on Skype and to realise that traditional ways of making friends, especially through troubled times, can transform the way we live our lives.

In grief it should be no different.

Have you had to navigate the loss of a friend online? Did you feel that your grief was disenfranchised, or not immediately embraced?



Join the conversation! 9 Comments

  1. Thank you Sarah. This post will help so many people. Everywhere I’ve shared it’s been met with thanks for not only legitimising their feelings but allowing people to understand why they feel the way they do. A beautifully written piece. Thanks you again for writing this xx

  2. In the first year I started blogging, there was a lovely woman who lost her sister and blogged about her grief. The day after her sister’s funeral, something happened to her and she was lost too. A friend updated her blog to let her reader’s know that she had died from natural causes. She has always stayed with me. She is like my blogging angel, I think. She keeps me company. x

    • I like the idea of a blogging angel Bron – there is such a sense of disconnection when we read and read someones inner most thoughts and then suddenly they are gone. Its like you dont know where to put those feelings. Thanks for popping by x

  3. Having experienced internet friends who have lost sons, daughters husbands and wives over the years I have found that being able to go somewhere where they could say what they felt , without having to be strong for the family or being judged plus with people living all over the world there is always someone up no matter what the hour. We as a family have benefited from internet friendship DD when diagnosed with MS received over two hundred and fifty patchwork hearts made for her ,it is the first thing she reaches for when ill, or off to hospital . The fact that people she has never met or ever likely to meet means so much to her that people have taken time out of their busy lives to make the blocks for her . Being able to support someone by just saying I am here if you want to talk . or simply I am thinking of you does make a difference. My DH is has cancer and asbestosis we don’t know how long we have but make the most of everyday .

    • That’s interesting from another perspective isn’t it Ann Maree…how our online world allows us to speak openly and at times where people are available. Thanks so much for commenting x

  4. I agree this article will help many people and it is definitely a topic that those who don’t use the internet really don’t understand.
    I am currently in the bizarre situation of having developed an online friendship with someone of the opposite sex. We were planning to meet in a month, we spoke on the phone for the first time on a Wednesday then I heard nothing …a few days went by and by the following Monday when I’d heard nothing from him I thought ‘silly man , typical’. Later that day a friend posted on his Facebook that he was in hospital having had a heart attack! I immediately texted him and we then spoke on the phone. I am having all these mixed emotions for someone I haven’t even met. He has been moved to a hospital not that far from me and I was left with the thought of what to do? Go visit for the first time in hospital, leave him to his family or what!? I just asked him straight out what he wanted and it turns out his condition is very serious, he will most likley have surgery in a few days and he would really like to meet me just incase he doesn’t pull through.
    So tomorrow I go and visit somone I feel quite close to despite never having met, during one of the most difficult times of his life. As I said mixed emotions and who knows how the relationship will translate into ‘real ‘life’ but I am prepared to give it a go and be there to support him now.
    I think it’s important people don’t undervalue online relationships particularly certain personality types (introverts ?) may place a very high value on them.

  5. What a great article. Last summer I lost an online friend I’d been corresponding with for years. We began talking on a topic-specific internet site (photography) and it grew into a great friendship with one or the other of us sending emails every so often, talking about our passion for the art, our lives, families, pets, hopes, dreams, emotions, and just life in general. We never talked or met in person. This was not a romantic connection, just a personal, trusting friendship. Last summer, about the time this article was published. My friend sent me a disjointed email that didn’t quite make sense, misspelled words, half-sentences, etc. I came to find out she had been in a horrific car accident and was laying in the hospital with massive head injuries. She told me she was dying. She wouldn’t tell me where she was (there was always a gap between us that she didn’t feel comfortable crossing, and I always respected that). A couple more emails and then- nothing. I gleaned one of her family member’s emails from a cc list on one of the many emails she had sent me before and I contacted that person. The family member just forwarded my email to my friend. My friend responded a couple more times, even more illegible and incoherent, saying she was dying and trying to explain what had happened to her, then nothing. I learned from a search engine about two months later that she had died. I was just devastated. I was also just so stricken that she would have reached out to me, of all people, someone she’d never met or talked to in person, literally on her death bed. I felt a great sense of loss and sadness. No one seemed to understand, and I felt I had to be reserved in sharing my grief lest people would want to make something of it that wasn’t (like a romance or something – which it was not). So now, a year later, I posted a condolence on the only remaining guest book of hers, and on a site where she left a gallery of her art. When you share a part of your life with someone, your personal feelings, beliefs, wishes, dreams, they are a friend no matter if you’re in-person or online, no matter if there are aspects of each other’s lives that are kept private for whatever reason. We share what we share, and it’s very real. There is a hole in my life for losing this friend just like there is for face-to-face friends I’ve lost. We are going to see more and more instances of this, and I think people should be able to share their grief with such losses without feeling like some kind of ‘internet creep.’ Thanks again for the great article.

  6. I’m sorry if my comment was somehow unacceptable to be posted. I lost an online friend about a year ago, and I found your article relevant and meaningful. In my comment I tried to describe that friendship and the loss. I apologize if it was not my best writing. It is an emotional subject for me, but that’s fine that you deleted it. I understand.


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