The Internet can be an amazing source of information, inspiration, and community for people who are grieving. One can turn to the Internet, day or night, and connect with people halfway across the world who are going through, or have been through, the same things as you; one can rarely say these things about their support group or community resources. So for these reasons, and many others, the Internet can be a great addition to your grief coping toolbox. On the other hand, let’s face it, there’s a wide span of grief support available on the Internet ranging from great, awesome amazing! content to complete crap.
We want you to feel confident in your ability to harness the power of the Internet without getting swindled or led astray, so we’ve put together this guide to assessing online grief support.
When using the Internet for grief support, always keep in mind…
- If something feels ‘bad’, ‘off’, or ‘wrong’ in your gut, then walk away.
- Be incredibly cautious when it comes to the exchange of money, sharing detailed contact information, or meeting in person.
- The Internet should never serve as a substitute for those who feel they need the treatment, guidance, and care of a doctor, psychiatrist, or therapist.
- If you are having thoughts of harming yourself or someone else, do not turn to chat rooms or websites for support and guidance. The only exception to this rule is if you choose to access the National Suicide Prevention’s Lifeline Chat. Otherwise, call 1-800-273-TALK, head to your local ER or call 911, or follow your therapist’s instructions (if you have a therapist) for contacting them in an emergency.
When assessing a grief support website, blog, or group, ask yourself these four questions: Who, When, What and Why?
1. What is the difference between .gov, .edu., .com, .org, and .net?
.gov = This is a government institution. These sources are generally considered objective and credible.
.edu = This is an educational institution. Most college websites end in .edu as well as some grade schools and high schools. Information from .edu sources is sometimes credible and unbiased, and sometimes not.
Faculty members at colleges and universities can typically be considered reputable sources, especially if their information is research (evidenced) based. However, information may also be influenced by a person’s interpretation, training, background, or belief system. It’s important to remember that although this faculty member or program may focus on one theory or therapy, there are many different theories and therapies related to grief that could resonate with you.
.org, .com, and .net = Although .org typically indicates a non-profit organization, it is important to know that anyone can register for a website ending in any of these suffixes. This being the case, information on any of these sites should not be automatically considered credible.
Even large, well-established, organizations can have biases and agendas. The most important thing to note is whether the organization seems like a credible source of information or grief support. You should also consider whether their mission and approach feel right for you. A good place to start in your assessment is the ‘About’ section of a website which we’ll discuss in greater detail in response to question #3.
2. How current is the site?
As timeless as grief is, our understanding of it continues to evolve, so when educating yourself about grief it’s generally best to look for articles written in the last 5 to 10 years. If you’re looking for grief support, you obviously want to ensure that the sites you choose to engage with are active and regularly updated. Websites, especially personal blogs, are often maintained for a time and then abandoned.
3. Who is running the site?
Many grief sites are run by larger organizations, grief centers, alliances, and businesses. As noted above, organizations often have goals, agendas, biases, philosophies, and approaches, so before putting your trust in this organization it’s important to know who they are. The first thing anyone should do when assessing a website is read the ‘About’ page. This page should give you a good idea of the organization’s mission and it should tell you why they are specifically qualified to carry out this mission. It’s also a good idea to look a little further into who their leaders are and, if applicable, their board members.
- If an organization is offering grief education or therapeutic services, ensure there are mental health professionals on their leadership team.
- If an organization is offering peer support and made up of fellow grievers, try and get a feel for who these people are and if you think this is a group you will feel comfortable interacting with. Peers can be a great source of support but remember no two grievers are alike and you should always take the advice and experience of others with a grain of salt.
- If an organization is geared towards advocacy, ask yourself if you are ready, interested, or able to get involved with this specific cause. Many people find that working with a cause related to their loved one or their loved one’s death is a healthy way to cope with their grief, while others prefer not to get involved.
A Person or a Group of People:
Many grief sites are overseen and authored by one person or a group of people. The content of these sites run the gamut and may center around…
- grief education
- coping ideas and suggestions
- grief support
- sharing the author’s own experience in an effort to help others
- sharing the author’s own experience solely for the purposes of their own catharsis and healing
Again always start with the ‘About’ section of the website, but also have a look around at some of their content.
If a person is putting themselves forth as an expert, offering education, training, or treatment…
Always make sure this person is qualified to offer these things. Make sure they provide information about what makes them qualified to offer whatever it is their offering. Typically a few things you can look for are…
- Do they have credentials? All those letters after a person’s name can get confusing, but if the person running the site is putting themselves forth as an expert or selling a treatment program or therapy, you want to be sure to know what these credentials mean. Don’t assume credentials mean something relevant to grief and/or mental health because often they do not. Some credentials indicate the person has gone to school for a long time and/or has extensive training. Other credentials mean a person took a 3-hour online course. Try doing a Google search to find out what the credentials mean and if that doesn’t work, you can always send the author an email and ask.
- Do they have education and/or training? Does the website author(s) note any special education or training that makes them qualified to offer education, training, or treatment?
- Do they write well informed and/or well-researched articles? Some websites gear their articles towards taking complex concepts and breaking them down (explaining them) in a way that makes the topic easier to understand. Although authors of these articles are sometimes established experts, they are often just authors who put time into researching and learning about given concept so they can then help others understand it better. In these instances, look for references, trust your gut, and if you are unsure about the content, check it against other articles on the Internet.
If a person is offering peer support, sharing their story, or writing about their grief experience…
Many people find reading other’s stories helpful. Also, one can often find peer support in the comment sections and social media pages of individual bloggers. As we mentioned before, it’s important to remember that everyone has a different grief experience. You can take comfort in the universality and similarity of grief experiences, but try not to expect complete sameness. Try and learn from your differences, but be careful when drawing comparisons or making judgments. Finally, remember that what works for one person will not work for all. It’s great if you can learn from the experience and advice of others, but always check this advice against your reality and decide whether it’s truly helpful for your unique situation.
A forum, Facebook group, or community discussion board…
The Internet is great because you can connect with people from all over the world who are going through similar experiences. Sadly, it can also be a repository for negativity, meanness, and bullying. If engaging in an online group of any kind, investigate the following…
- Is the group moderated?
- Who is moderating the group? Is it moderated by mental health professionals or peers?
- If a group is moderated by a peer, be mindful that they might not (1) be an expert on grief (2) have training on how to handle conflict or (3) know how to help people who are in crisis. If you are ever feeling such extreme distress that you are having thoughts of harming yourself or someone else, you should never turn to an online forum for immediate support. Instead, call the suicide hotline at 1 (800) 273-8255 or visit your local Emergency Room.
- Are there rules for this group?
- Most groups should have a set of rules and a contact person or process for reporting any violations to these rules
- Does the group have a specific focus? For example, is the group for bereaved parents or is the group associated with a specific interest, affiliation, or is it faith-based?
- Do I feel at home in this group?
- If at any time you start to feel as though the group is not right for you, then trust your gut and look elsewhere for support.
4. Is the site selling something or does it have advertising?
When to have an open mind:
Although some people will tell you to steer clear of websites that run advertising or who sell products, we have a more sympathetic (or realistic) view. In order to maintain a quality website and to ensure content is up to date and comprehensive, sites often need a source of income to stay afloat. WYG is a perfect example, the only reason why we are able to write comprehensive articles and to continue to evolve the free content on our site is that we continue to search for small ways to partially finance these endeavors. Many sites have the same plight and so they decide to take donations, sell products and/or resources that compliment content on their site or run advertising somewhere on their site.
Our suggestion when looking at a site which has advertising or which sells products is to ask yourself:
- Does the priority of this website seem to be offering free, comprehensive, and responsible content and does this content stand on its own?
If not, ask yourself…
- Does the priority of this website seem to be to persuade me to buy something and/or is the information being offered intentionally vague or incomplete so that I will buy their product?
If the answer to this second question is ‘yes’, then proceed with caution.
When to be skeptical:
Advertising on the Internet can be more covert than you think. For example, Litsa and I often receive emails with offers to pay us to write blog posts recommending a product and providing a link to that product (don’t worry, we always say no). As people who really want the trust of our readers, we believe it would be manipulative and deceitful to abuse this trust by promoting products we don’t believe in. But be aware that this can and does happen on many sites, so pay attention.
There are certainly people who are more than willing to prey on the vulnerability of grief. If a program looks like a ‘get-well-quick’ scheme, or if the person offering the program doesn’t seem reputable, be careful. Not everyone is malicious, but even well-intentioned people sometimes offer products or services they aren’t fully qualified to provide out of a desire to make a career out of their grief experience. Regardless, always look at content with a critical eye and pay attention to red flags like the following…
- When a website aggressively tries to obtain your contact information
- When anyone offers a cure to your grief or tries to sell you a ‘get-well-quick’ scheme
- When a therapy or treatment program is not well-researched or evidenced based
- When someone who is not a mental health professional is offering a treatment program or therapy
- When a site claims to be the only source of information on a topic or therapy. Information should always be verifiable through other sources.
- When a blog post seems heavily biased and reads more like an advertisement than an article.
For a detailed discussion of the pros and cons of different types of grief support on the Internet check out our article, Internet Grief Support: With the good, comes the bad.
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