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Grieving online: Can sites like Facebook help heal?

Charlotte Fox, 54, of Tarpon Springs wrote a brutally frank obituary about how her 29-year-old son, Matthew Fox, committed suicide after a long struggle with addiction.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

Charlotte Fox, 54, of Tarpon Springs wrote a brutally frank obituary about how her 29-year-old son, Matthew Fox, committed suicide after a long struggle with addiction.

At first, it was just a way to make sure someone learned something from her son's suicide.

But Charlotte Fox's direct and unsparing obituary for 29-year-old Matthew Fox became something else when the words were published on the St. Petersburg Times' Web site on Feb. 7.

Avoiding any euphemisms or delicate language, Fox wrote that on Feb. 2 her son "died due to self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head because of depression brought on by addiction to prescription drugs."

Besides shattering the example of the sanitized, formulaic newspaper death notice, Fox's bold words showed how honestly-felt obituaries could rocket across the Internet, creating new ways to share grief and loss in online media.

In this case, Matthew Fox's obituary guestbook became an online wake of sorts, with family, friends and even total strangers sharing stories about the toll that addiction and unexpected death can take.

"I lost my beautiful, 28-year-old daughter two weeks ago," wrote Lisa from Pinellas Park. "The heartbreak, pain and anger is raw, but I salute your strength in telling others why your son died."

"I didn't know him or any of his family, but I salute your courage in the obituary notice you had published," added Sheila of South Pasadena. "This type of problem needs to be brought to the public's, the medical field's and the advertising business' attention."

That's exactly the effect Fox, 54, had hoped for. The longtime teacher at Tarpon Springs High School had thought she was isolated in her grief and pain until the flood of sympathetic guestbook messages began coming in.

"It helps to feel I'm not alone," she said of the outpouring. But she admitted that her son's substance abuse problems angered her enough to craft a tough eulogy for his funeral on Feb. 6, urging friends and family to learn from his sad example. "So many families are hiding in shame and they're not reaching out. But I want to find a way to stop this stupidity. … I want his life to mean something."

As more people share more of their lives online, grief moves with them, experts say. And the nature of sites such as Facebook, Twitter and even online guestbooks allows people suffering from tragedies to find others just like them.

"I think some of this online sharing is good therapy … it can help lead us out of isolation and gives us hope that together we can make it," said Beverley Hurley, chairwoman of the Tampa area chapter of Bereaved Parents, which has its own site.

"So often, after a period of time, people just don't want to talk about it," said Hurley, who is still talking about the loss of her daughter Debbie to cancer 20 years ago. "They think you should be over it. But you never get over losing a child."

Finding hope

After her son was killed in a fight with a co-worker in 2003, Theresa Farmer struggled to cope.

She became wary of the world in general, spending more time in her Wesley Chapel home. An unexpected call from Hillsborough County authorities about her son's killer could leave her in tears midway through a workday.

But an obsession with online research eventually led Farmer to bond with another woman who had also lost a son and was living in Virginia.

They have never met in person, and may never see each other now that the friend has moved to California. But Farmer said those online chats helped her heal in ways beyond the talks at the Bereaved Parents group meetings.

"If you wake up in the middle of the night and you're crying your eyes out and your husband is tired of hearing about it, you can hop online and connect with other people," she said. "Being able to write back and say, 'It's going to be okay,' … that helped me, too."

Social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook are both personal and impersonal at once, said Gloria Horsley, a retired clinical nurse specialist in San Francisco who began hosting an Internet radio show about grief and loss five years ago. Her son was killed in a 1983 car accident.

"It's personal, because you're coming from your heart and telling your story," said Horsley, whose show, Healing the Grieving Heart, has grown into a foundation called Open to Hope. The group's Web site and online platforms on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube draw about 2 million people each month, she said. "But it's impersonal because you don't know what's happening to the material when it goes online. … And you don't know the other people out there (reading it)."

She acknowledged that sometimes the subjects can seem jarring — like seeing a friend's Facebook status announce the death of a sibling or spouse amid others' chatter about the Super Bowl. But such comments can also create an instant network of sympathetic souls stretching across great distances, uniting friends and family who might otherwise have never known what happened.

The advantages: access to a wide range of ideas and support for free (a particular cause for Horsley, who notes some survivors don't have health insurance to pay for their own grief counseling). The disadvantages: You don't know who has conquered their own problems, messages can come from psychics and other fringe players, and sometimes people post personal tales they later wish they could take back.

"Nobody has the last word; that's what's different about the Internet," Horsley said. "There's no expert saying, 'This is how you should be.' People write their own stories."

Looking for an answer

There are some things people still don't understand about those grieving for a child who has died, Hurley said.

Parents often want to talk about their child, even through tears. Crying is often a good release. And as much as support groups want to offer hope, parents who have lost a child also must accept their lives have changed forever, she said.

"Sometimes your second year might feel worse than your first," Hurley said. "You realize, this is the rest of my life. It's not just (feeling sad) on the first birthday or the first anniversary; it's every birthday and every anniversary. Basically, a parent has lost their innocence."

This is a reality Fox is beginning to face, helped by the support and feedback she has received online. Her father also died late last year, and she still visits his online obituary, occasionally writing messages to help cope.

She's hoping her online connections will allow her to show grief without worrying about looking strong for other family members. And she hopes to ask someone the question that has been burning since she first learned the awful news of her son's fate.

"In this whole process, the thing which has hurt me the most is that he left a note," said Fox, her voice breaking as she remembered the detail. "That means he planned this … (and) I want to ask another parent: 'How do you live with that?' How do I ask somebody that question? But I can try to do that (online)."

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or deggans@sptimes.com. See The Feed blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.

Online resources

• Open to Hope's Internet radio show, YouTube videos and other online resources are accessible here: thegriefblog.com.

• Tampa Bay chapter of Bereaved Parents:
bpusatampabay.com.

• Peter's Place — A Center for Grieving Children and Families: petersplaceonline.org.

Grieving online: Can sites like Facebook help heal? 02/14/10 [Last modified: Monday, February 15, 2010 10:20am]

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