Grieving an Online Friend: 8 things you should know about cybergrief

When you saw the title of this post my guess is you had one of two reactions:

  1. Ah, finally WYG is writing about cybergrief.  What took them so long?!?
  2. Uhhh, cybergrief . . .???

We have mentioned cybergrief and loss before (you may remember it from this post on disenfranchised grief) and it has been on my list to write about for at least two years, but it keeps falling to the back burner.  Luckily I have been binge-listening to the Reply All podcast for the last week (I know, I am totally behind the eight ball on that but my podcast schedule has been tight and it just now made it to the top of my list). All the talk of online gaming communities and online forum friendships (and engagements) and weird twitter has made me feel incredibly guilty as a grief blog that we didn’t tackle this topic sooner.  If you are feeling as confused as Alex Blumberg during a game of Yes Yes No, fear not.  Clarity is on the way in the form of a list of important truths.

8 Things You Should Know To Understand Cybergrief

  1. Online friendships are friendships.  But before we can talk about cybergrief, we do need to establish that cyber relationships are real, meaningful relationships.  Yes they are a newer phenomenon in the history of humanity, yes there are things about them that are different that real life relationships, but that does not mean they are not valid, significant relationships. Whether you know it or not, whether you do it or not, people meet other people and build real meaningful relationships online all the time.  I am not talking about and okcupid style relationships, where you meet online with a clear intention to meet in real life.  I am talking about online relationships you form that remain online.  Just like in real life, these online relationships happen all over the place, with varying levels of intimacy.   I don’t even know where to begin in listing examples because there are so many, but forums come to mind first.  Forums exist around almost every topic and interest you can imagine and people head there looking to connect with people with common interests and find support from others struggling with similar challenges.  No surprise, many friendships and even romantic relationships are born in forums.   These relationships also form in forum-like social media communities (like reddit and closed facebook groups), online gaming communities, online support groups, online learning communities, and on and on and on.
  2. Cybergrief is the natural reaction to a cyberloss.  Just like grief is our natural reaction to loss, cybergrief is the natural reaction to cyberloss.  The grief of any loss is unique to the person grieving and their relationship to the person who died.  In some cases, the relationship you had was an entirely online relationship. That may impact the form and shape of the grief but it certainly does not change that it is, in fact, grief.  There was a great opinion piece in The Guardian a few years ago written by Edward Collier who was grieving an online friend he knew from a cricket forum.  In the piece, he struggles with the question of whether “a virtual friendship is the equal of a ‘real’ one” and what protocol is around attending the funeral.  His questions aside, what seems clear reading the article is that Collier was certainly grieving the loss – his friend, George, impacted his life in a real way and that loss was significant.  The Guardian tackled this topic again in an article by Nicky Wolfe on the death of a social media friend, echoing some of the same ideas and adding a discussion on the impact of grief in a world where we connect with so many people online and stay in touch with, or at least aware of, people for so much longer because of social media.
  3. Society can make cybergrievers feel like crap.  Way to kick someone while they’re down, society.  Sadly, because online friendships are new-ish and not universally understood, some people may act like those relationships didn’t count, that cybergrief isn’t grief, or that someone doesn’t have the right to grieve a cyberloss.  If you have felt this way about a cyberloss (or about any loss) you may want to check out our post on disenfranchised grief.    A quick example regarding cybergrief: in the article I mentioned above, Edward Collier lays out his emotional struggle about attending the funeral.  Though there was a tremendous amount of support in the comments, there were also comments like: “I think it would be nice if you went as a hologram…floating behind the alter” and “No, no, no, no, absolutely not!!!!From what you’ve said, this isn’t even someone you’ve had personal correspondence with, like a pen pal, but a contributor to a forum you’ve bounced remarks off. Why on earth would you want to join his close family at a private funeral where people will be mourning their grief for a lost loved one?”.  Needless to say, mocking and minimizing online relationships is still alive and well.
  4. Societal norms around grieving an online friend are still pretty fuzzy.  This undoubtedly contributes to some of the less-than-supportive comments that can be made toward cyber-grievers, but it also can contribute to one’s own confusion as a cyber-griever.  Questions can come up like, do I have the right to grieve this loss, should I attend this funeral, should I reach out to the family either online or with a sympathy card.   The existence of cyber-relationships is relatively new, so there are no clear societal ‘rules’.  As Edward Collier points out, there are norms to tell him what he should wear to the funeral if he attends, but no norms to tell him if he should attend.  When there are no norms and expectations to fall back on, it is easy to question your feelings, decisions and behaviors.
  5. Virtual funerals exist and can be great options for both friends from online, as well as real life friends who can’t (or don’t want) to attend a real life service.  Sometimes you have the luxury to consider attending the funeral IRL, but in many instances, the online relationship is with someone across the country or across the world.  More and more often families are streaming funerals so friends (of all sorts) can attend.  Also, many online communities also host their own funerals and memorials when a member dies.  It can be as simple as an online memorial or tribute space to leave comments, or an actual funeral event within a video game where players can virtually attend.
  6. You have every right to grieve the loss of a cyber friend.  We wish this truth was obvious but, based on the questions and comments we’ve seen around the interwebs, that doesn’t seem to be the case.  So we’ll be the ones to say it: your relationship was important, your grief is important, and you should give yourself the time and space you need to grieve.  If you are coping with this you don’t need to broadcast it if you don’t feel comfortable, but do keep in mind the more we all talk about this the more it will become normalized, understood, and better supported.
  7. There are some unique challenges when grieving a virtual friend.  I can’t list them all here, but there are a few common examples:
    • You often don’t learn about the death right away, because the person’s real-life community didn’t know/think to notify you.
    • You may or may not have a relationship with their other online friends, or their real life friends.  If you don’t, there can be a feeling of isolation that no one else you know is grieving the person.
    • You may feel self-conscious talking about it.  Though you are distracted at home or work, the fact that it was an online friendship may make it hard to tell a boss, friend, or family member that you are grieving an online friend.
    • If you had intentions of someday meeting in real life, but just had not gotten to yet, you may now feel a sense of loss of that hope for the future.
  8. There is support out there.  I wish I could say there is a lot of specific cybergrief support out there.  Sadly, there isn’t.  But there is some!  When we first started WYG one of our first cyber grief-friends was Casey, founder of the site Navigating Cyberloss.   Though the site is no longer being updated, four years of her posts about her own experience grieving an online friend and ideas for coping remain.  Also, sites like this one and other online grief support spaces have a lot of information and support that can be helpful for anyone grieving, no matter the loss.  Though the majority of people in communities like this one are grieving offline losses, they have often experienced the valuable of online relationships and support.

Thoughts about grieving an online friend?  Leave a comment!  And as always, subscribe to get all our grief posts right to your inbox!

March 28, 2017

9 responses on "Grieving an Online Friend: 8 things you should know about cybergrief"

  1. I lost one of my best friends today. I’ve never met him, but I loved him like a brother. He’s always going to be in my heart. 15 is too young an age for anyone to go, but he still did. This article helped me a lot. Thank you.
    Something that should be recognised as well is that a lot of young people on the internet have mental health issues and reach out to other people on the internet to find friendships. Now more than ever, I realise just how much people my age are hurting.

  2. Cybergrief is a thing now I wanY to kill myself and join my brother more than ever

    • Yeah, I know it can be hard to relate to the source of other people’s grief, especially when you are personally grieving the death of someone like a sibling or another family member. Grief comes in different forms and different intensities, but the fact of the matter is that you can grieve any relationship and any loss.

      I think your comment may have been sarcastic, but regardless we do always want to take the opportunity to remind all our readers that if anyone is ever considering hurting themselves to please seek help right away. You can walk into any emergency room or call 911 (if you are in the US). You can also call the suicide hotline in the US at 18002738255 or in the UK at 44 (0) 8457 90 90 90. If you are elsewhere just google suicide hotline and your country name.

      My heart goes out to you as you continue to grieve the death of your brother. Take care of yourself today.

  3. I sincerely appreciate your article on cybergrief. Your observations remind me to check with grieving clients as to their family member’s online activity and whether steps to notify cyber friends or fellow players of the person’s death. There’s a good article in reference to online gaming funerals and memorials at: Thank you for all of your input.

  4. Hi,

    Thanks for posting this. I was in a 12 year relationship with a woman online who I never physically met, but loved all the same. There were many complicating factors and reasons behind why we never met, and I have alot of guilt and regret about it. I’ve never classified what I am feeling specifically as ‘cyber grief’, because it so many ways, it was as real as a relationship can be. But we did meet online so I guess it is technically accurate in some respects and I can relate to alot of the things mentioned, including loss of hope of a future between us and being unable to properly grieve with other people that knew her.

  5. Thanks Litsa! To help with normalising, like you say, let me share that I grieved for an online person who I never met. I like this article, because it helps to make sense of this thing which isn’t yet a spoken norm in our culture. I felt I was being “silly” at the time. It was a dear boy called Caleb from a Youtube channel called Bratayley. I used to watch their daily uploads as a way of zoning out each evening. His death was sudden and happened when I was also grieving for my father, and somehow it just hit me for six. I think the hard thing is that it is not easy to vent your grief, or get support, when it is an online grief. Sometimes the only people who know about it are online, which can have some minuses.

  6. Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, DCCNovember 3, 2016 at 1:05 pmReply

    Thanks so much for posting about this important topic, Litsa. As you say, cybergrief is just as real, and in many instances, just as painful, as any other loss, depending on the significance of the relationship with the one who is lost ~ and too often it goes unrecognized or is criticized, discounted and even ridiculed.

  7. I’m two months out from my wife passing. Twenty five years of bliss. Research is my trade somewhat and your site is informative. Grief touches all cultures. It would be neat to have an article touching on the rituals of other cultures. In any event, much of my research informs me that the riddle? of grief is solved in the journey through time. Time also touches all cultures. Grief is in our DNA. We are a social animal. The many books I have read and websites dance around it. Time equals change. Personally, it seems microscopic at this juncture. Much of the psychology of it is common sense and eventually you will bounce off enough people (both good and bad) to make your own sense of it. Tragically, some don’t bump into enough people and end up bumping into themselves with catastrophic results. Time and company, at least from what I’ve distilled is the path to carry the weight of it…once it has held your hand, Grief is forever in some form or another.

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