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?!?
    OR
  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 match.com 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.
    grieving-an-online-friend
  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

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

  1. About a week ago, an online friend unfriended and blocked me. The worst part is that I can’t think of any reason why. I know hes still online and such, but it still feels as cyberloss. As this is on Roblox, I dont feel that I can talk to anyone because the overall opinion of roblox in my community in that its stupid. He was a close friend that I play with daily, he even said once that I was probably one of the people he mostly played with. This was so horribly unexpected and….I don’t even know why. This article helped me in a way that I can know that it’s okay to grieve, that it’s not stupid or lame. Thank you.

  2. I have lost a dear friend of over 12 years online. We spoke daily and I do know he has died, but I can’t find no record of it or what happened to him after he passed away. I would have loved to have acknowledged his funeral but although I wrote to his sister I have received no answer. I miss him so much and my real life friends don’t understand saying well he wasn’t really a friend was he you didn’t know him. I think I knew him more than anyone I know, he would listen to my problems and offer advice I feel so lost right now.

  3. Thank you for this article. I believe… I believe I lost one of my closest friends this weekend. He was definitely my closest online friend. We’d be up nearly every night playing video games and having fun. We had our ups and downs for sure, but our friendship was unique. Or it seemed it at the time. I keep being told and I keep telling myself that he may still be okay and alive and maybe something else came up, but the last message he sent me was that he was having chest pains… and that was 2 days ago. He messaged me every day, even when I wasn’t online. And now my messages are sitting there still listed as “unread.” There have been many times we haven’t talked, but I have this feeling in the pit of my stomach that no matter how many times I check, I’m never going to see “Hey pal, how ya doing?” come from him again. I don’t know his family, I don’t even know if the name he gave me is his real name. I just know I feel this sheer emptiness from his account. I’m feeling cyberloss. And it sucks. Trying to cope and trying to grieve. That sucks too. Everyone I know in real life thinks I’m jumping the gun, thinks my online friendship doesn’t and shouldn’t matter as much as my “IRL” ones. But I’ve always trusted my feelings. I’ve seen his health decline, especially recently. I know his heart wasn’t doing so great, he told me that himself. But to think he’s gone and his last words were “Sorry, I gotta call this game short. I’m not feeling so great. I’m having some chest pains. I gotta go. Later.” And like an idiot I replied “Oh man, sorry to hear that! Don’t worry about the game! I hope you feel better soon!”
    Maybe… maybe I helped him somehow down the road. maybe I made him laugh and smile more than he would have otherwise. But it still sucks. no one will ever understand our complex friendship. Only we could have hurt each other the way we did and only we could have helped each other the way we did, too. We were the worst of friends and we were the best of friends. And I’m gonna miss the hell out of him.

  4. Thank you very much for this post.

    I met Dan online about two years ago when I was going through my divorce. He was a friend of a friend who commented on a Facebook post and we got talking. At the time I lived in England, and he lived in Canada. Up until about 5 months ago we communicated maybe once or twice a week – short conversations but pleasant conversations .

    Dan’s husband died in January – and I reached out to him. I think he valued having someone who wasn’t family that he could talk to and share the pain – and absurdity – of dealing with death. The sense of loss – and – doing a dead man’s laundry! We started messaging every day – and were sending voice and video messages.

    On Friday he messaged me to say he was having an early night because he didn’t feel great. Said he felt all clogged up – his chest was sore and he thought maybe he had an infection or something. I messaged him back to say I hope he felt better – sent a little joke – and that was it. On Saturday – no ‘Good Morning’ message -but I thought he had probably just overslept and was glad he got some rest. I checked at 5pm and no message either – which was unusual so I went to his Facebook page where his stepdaughter posted that he had died in the night of a heart attack. He was 59.

    I’m a wreck – ever time my phone ‘pings’ I think it’s him. I keep checking his Facebook page – but his family don’t know who I am so it doesn’t feel right to leave a message or send a condolence. I’m bereft.

    This page has helped – at least I don’t feel like I’m wrong for feeling this loss so deeply.

  5. Thank you. I now know my grief is real. This article makes me understand what I’m feeling, because the pain bottled up inside me are finally slipping down my cheeks in tears.
    I was an awkward child. Shy, extremely shy to the point where loneliness was all I had felt during my childhood and through the course of my middle school years because I had feared to open my mouth and speak in the fear that I will make a fool of. myself. I couldn’t talk to anyone about this because I was expected to be a perfect child. So I always cry in secret.
    But one day I log into into my account and played a game. It became my second life, and it is with great eagerness that I log on everyday to enjoy a life where I had people support me. The first person I met on this game was Cotton, or as I call her by her real name- Tess. She and her best friend, Peacock, aka Tiffany, were the funniest, nicest, and strongest player in the game. It wasn’t long until we were inseparable Tiffany taught me the skills I needed to become the 5th powerful sniper. She taught me dedication, loyalty, humility, and most of all- to put my best effort forward. Tess…she was the funniest person. She gave me motivation when Tiffany was defeating me over and over again. She taught me how to my trustworthy and how to make others feel included. I was so happy for 4 years. 4 years of my childhood were bliss and I used the game to escape from the horrible reality of this cruel world.
    But…
    Tess died of cancer. She has been fighting a losing battle against it for almost 2 years. 2 years of which I could’ve her so much memories. She didn’t tell me or Tiffany about her illness. If I had known…if I had known about what she was going through, I could’ve made her final moment happier. But the last time she asked if I was interested in training, I told her no because I had to do my homework. If I had said yes, I could’ve spent 15 mins with her. Could’ve spent 15 minutes of my life to make her happy for the last time. So instead, she texted me “Good night.”
    Hah, I laugh bitterly at this. Good night is suppose to lead to good morning, but no matter how much time I check the app, there was never a good morning from her. Tiff, well… I have never seen her again after Tess’s death.
    I couldn’t stop crying for the past month. My dearest friends who I had spent hours together laughing, teasing, crying, joking, dancing, singing… all the memories that now stab at my heart with heaviness whenever I think about it, and all of the people who made me smile freely are gone. So I go back to acting.
    No one could understand what I’m going to. So I put on a mask and force my entire body, my entire being, my entire soul, to smile.
    But I must say thank you to my friends who have helped me through every step of the way. You may no longer be here with me Tess and Tiffany, but there are no one who could steal your spot in my life. One day I’ll see the both of you again, and one day I’ll laugh with you again, my dearest friends. I miss the both of you so much it hurts.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/online-funerals-gamers-friends-never-met-gaming-death-social-network-world-of-warcraft-skyrim-a7507836.html. Thank you for all of your input.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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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