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Teens in mourning find solace in cyberspace

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Myspace, a social networking site used generally by teenagers and college students, has become a place where users are memorializing friends who have died.

After 20-year-old Amanda Butkovich died in a car crash two years ago, her family put up a memorial at the scene of the accident in suburban Chicago.

They built a small brick enclosure where people put cards, flowers and stuffed animals in her memory.

The site serves as a physical memorial to Amanda, who was cremated. But when Amanda’s younger sister, Angela, moved away to Illinois State University, she wasn’t able to visit the memorial, so she started her own memorial--online. She put up photos of Amanda: some from her childhood, others with family members and friends.

“Being at a young age, and having many friends in schools not in the area, a global Facebook group seemed like such a good idea,” Angela said. “Sometimes you need something right then and you can't wait until your next trip home for the weekend to go visit the corner. You sometimes need immediacy, and that's what this is about.”

For college students and teenagers, Web sites like MySpace and Facebook are places to talk to friends, meet new people and post thoughts and photos. But more and more, teens and 20-somethings who flock to these social-networking sites are using these sites to mourn friends who have died. For many, cyberspace is providing a platform where they can publicly say what they always wanted to say to the deceased.

“Grieving is a never-ending process, and sometimes it really hits you in the face and you need something,” Angela said. “I know I've visited the group many a time to just read what people have said about her, and that helps me through a bad time.”

When Adam Patrick Morris died in a car accident last fall, his grieving classmates at Hart County High School, about 40 miles northeast of Athens, Ga., went to the Web for solace. Morris, just 16 at the time, was a cheerful, outgoing teenager who was active in his church, loved golf and was popular with his classmates.

Amanda Setchel, one of Adam's classmates and a friend from church, started a Facebook memorial for him about a week after his death.

At the same time, Adam's own MySpace site became a place where his friends flocked. He died in the early morning hours of Sept. 3, and by 9 a.m., several of his friends had already left messages of loss and mourning.

Another friend had the password to Adam's MySpace site and decided to keep the page up. Most days, friends write on Adam's “wall," a virtual bulletin board where users can post comments. The notes are personal and most of them are addressed directly to Adam.

“After cheerleading tonight, mama took me to see you,” one reads. “I miss you so much. It's really hit home with me lately how much i have missed you. The other day i was looking through some old preschool photos and videos and i have one of me and you. Ha-ha . . . you had those big glasses. I miss them and i miss you buddy.”

There are pages and pages of comments from friends, some are deep heartfelt remembrances, others are short notes detailing emotions on a particular day.

Angela says her sister's page has gone beyond being a living shrine for Amanda and is now a place for others to mourn someone they have lost.

One woman from Toronto asked to join the group. Though she didn’t know Amanda, she explained she was missing a friend of hers that had died of cancer.

“She said she was proud to have found a group that she felt she belonged," Angela said. “To me, that was important. I've also had strangers tell me how they coped with their losses, even if they are not members.

For Sharon Anderson, of Minnetonka, Minn., whose daughter Ashton died last spring at the age of 18, the Facebook page her daughter’s friends made in her memory is heartwarming, but painful.

Ashton was about to graduate from high school and planned to attend the University of Minnesota.

For Ashton’s friends, Anderson says, the page is a place that helps them grieve. For Anderson, it is a reminder of Ashton, but not a place where she can find solace.

“It’s like looking at a picture,” she said. “Some days the picture will make me smile. Right now it’s sad. It’s very touching, I’m moved, I’m in awe, but it’s sad and I wish it wasn’t her.”

Still, she says, the memorial group for her daughter, which has more than 1,000 members, is a place she can see the impact her daughter had on other people’s lives.

“They haven’t forgotten her, and as a parent, that’s big,” she said. “She can’t be here physically, but I don’t want her forgotten. It’s a way to keep her memory alive.”

E-mail: pnc2103@columbia.edu