We all have loss in our lives. I wish we didn’t, but we do. So the real question is where do we turn with our grief? From whom do we seek and receive comfort? What practices help us to heal? For more and more people, the answer is Facebook and other social networking websites. A recent article in the Christian Science Monitor suggests that synagogues, churches, mosques, etc. have a lot to learn from the success such sites have in attracting young people especially as venues in which to share their grief and begin to heal.

The article’s author, bereavement expert Diana Nash, makes some important points and also misses some as well. Not least of which is what places like Facebook could learn from traditional religious communities. More accurately stated, I think it’s really about the ways in which different mourning communities meet different needs, and how making the best use of each of them is far more valuable than synthesizing them into some kind of magic bullet solution to grief.
Facebook is great precisely because of the anonymity which it affords its users. Mourners can pour out their hearts online to whoever is listening and there need not be any further exchange between them. They are bound by one thing and one thing only, a particular loss which they share. From the 150,000 mourners who posted on Michael Jackson’s page following his death, to the equal number of Facebook matches one finds by typing in the words “in memory of…” the numbers are too big to ignore.

Unquestionably, the purity of that experience and the lack of any further connections or obligations created by it are all attractive to those who mourn that way. And without belaboring the concerns about “false intimacy”, artificially elevated levels of loss created by the opportunity to join the circle of mourners at no emotional cost, etc. I think that we can all appreciate both the genuine value and real limitations of a totally open forum in which those who mourn together can say whatever they want, leave whenever they want, and have no ongoing relationships with one another.

The safety which media like Facebook create is a crucial element in grieving process – the safety to say whatever we want without fear of repercussion and the safety of knowing that whatever we say, someone is listening. On the other hand, the care of one’s family while they mourn, the attention to details that can only be addressed by those among whom we live, and the likelihood that only in the context of a physical community bound together by more than the desire to share their grief, will such things be properly addressed should not be forgotten in the rush to Facebook mourning groups.
There are also new possibilities including online visitation of mourners, saying Kaddish with a virtual minyan, the buying and delivery of virtual food to the homepages of mourners, just to name a few. While the latter is not physically nourishing, and that may be a crucial aspect of the the tradition of feeding mourners, can we deny it’s value as psychological and spiritual nourishment?
As is the case most of the time, the issue is not which is better or which is right, it’s how can we maximize different communities, virtual and real, learning from the best of what each has to offer, and make the grieving process more meaningful, effective, and healing for as many people as possible. The issue here is not about what’s hot in the death business, or even how traditional communities can catch up with Facebook. The issue is how new forms of community can enrich and enlighten the practices of older ones, and older ones can offer things which the new ones simply can’t.
So which is right? Both. Is one better than the other? Yes, but it depends on one’s needs at any given moment. I know those are such Jewish responses they are almost comical. But the truth is, they are rooted in a tradition which has always acknowledged that mourning is both a very public practice, to be shared with the larger community even if we do not know its members, and a deeply intimate process which begins among those closest to us listening to whatever we want to say for as long as we want to say it. There is synagogue mourning and home mourning, Kaddish-saying and story-telling, and we need them all. And, wherever we find them will be sacred space, whether it’s online, in person or both.
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