When one goes travelling, the worst fear is something disastrous will happen and you have to go home early. I met an 18-year-old German boy who had a death in the family and had to return before seeing any of New Zealand. I also recently lost a sorority sister Elizabeth White to a three-year battle with cancer. When I return home in a few weeks, it will be coming up on the one-year anniversary of the death of Milena. She was a friend to all and had only been initiated into Alpha Chi Omega two weeks before passing away.
When I first heard I regretted her loss, but I continued my afternoon routine checking through various social media platforms. I was repeatedly reminded of the impact of her death through the explosion of Internet activity, commonly described as grief. The same applications we use to stay in touch with family, to connect with other travellers, and to find upcoming parties also becomes a virtual memorial.
I remember watching as friends posted Tweets in mourning, as my Facebook news feed became a wall of loss, and instant messenger’s ‘away messages’ showed the sorrow of their users. We were grieving as an online community, an extension of our physical, human community. This was the way we showed each other that her family was on our minds and the pain of our friends was felt inside our own hearts.
In line with my peers, I left my own goodbye messages to Milena across any social media application I could. I attended a candle-light vigil inside our sorority house and a gathering of friends on campus. And within minutes of returning home after a late TCBY run, I was shocked by the new updates on my news feed. Friends were no longer satisfied with their own posts, but began leaving messages on Milena’s wall.
While this is a typical daily activity for many as Facebook has no restrictions on users, I did not understand the purpose of writing messages that she would never read, especially if only written 24-hours earlier their receiver would have been aware of the note. This new method of grieving was bizarre and unnatural.
I began to explore this idea – of leaving love notes to the dead across social mediums.
A popular place was the memorials for victims of the Virginia Tech shooting three years ago. Students commented that they left messages for their fallen classmates when their favorite songs played on the radio, when memories of good times cropped up, or when other reminders occurred. It was an interesting method for commemorating those taken from us suddenly or before, we believe, their time. For years, victims of car crashes or similar disasters have been remembered by semi-permanent memorials, like flowers on the road side or the stone memorial of the 32 Virginia Tech victims.
But a social media memorial is an interesting creature. At this time, the most recent post for Milena was only two days old, celebrating her birthday which would have been last weekend. How long will this last? We have transformed life from reality to virtuality, and the internet serves as the major connection for young people across the globe. Will our lack of physical community continue to reflect in other aspects of life? Does a virtual memorial satisfy the need to explain humanity and provide an outlet to hold on to those who have gone?