The Role of Online Bereavement Platforms in Helping Grieving Children Heal
By Cecilia Kennedy
In the spaces of the Internet, grieving children are carving a niche for themselves. They light virtual candles, post their own artwork, and help each other heal. “They understand, quite naturally, how good it is to have someone listen to them who ‘gets it.’ Kids seem like smart, wise people,” says Dr. Cendra Lynn, founder and director of GriefNet.org. Her daughter, Elyzabeth helped envision Kidsaid.com, which is also part of GriefNet.org. This site helps children and teens gain grief support. They can post their thoughts, without censorship by adults or parents. “They use their own language because it’s not our business to shape it in any way. We don’t know the answers,” Lynn explains. In this space, children from all over the world and rural areas can find support from others who are experiencing the same type of loss they’re experiencing now. In fact, online spaces and social media play an important role in helping children and adolescents cope, according to recent studies.
The fact that online sites are shaped by peers of a similar age is helpful. According to Heffel, et al. (2015), cited in Palmer, et al. (2016), “The most positive aspect of social media as a source of grief support is a shared location for young people to express support and condolences” (p. 279). In other words, this space tends to be “nonjudgmental,” as Lynn observes: “They accept each other without question. They simply discuss.” According to Katrin Döveling, who conducted her own study of four different bereavement platforms online in Germany, including platforms for children, widowers, adolescents, and adults, “Bereaved individuals compare themselves and their experiences with others online in a horizontal, nonjudgmental way” (2017, p 52). In this way, “Empathic reactions online thus ameliorate distressing moments of solitude. Here, online communication relating to loss-related emotions bears the potential for restorative actions and can be a vital source for recovery in traumatic, distressing events” (Döveling, 2017, p. 54). In other words, this “horizontal” or “nonjudgmental view” could lead to healing and coping behaviors.
These online spaces also seem to be versatile and empowering. According to a different, qualitative study by Katrin Döveling, of 21 threads and 319 postings on two different youth bereavement platforms in Germany, children find emotional value that might not exist in the offline world. Sometimes the adults and others in their life are experiencing their own issues. Or, they simply don’t understand. So, children are turning to each other and bereavement platforms. On these platforms, they efficiently use emoticons along with other visual symbols to help them communicate. In fact, according to Döveling’s study, emoticons fulfill several useful functions to help children display concepts that might be difficult to explain, like grief. Emoticons can have “toning effects” that help readers in the community understand messages of gratitude or irony. Emoticons can also help supplement a message (2015, pp. 414-415). Additionally, some platforms allow for other symbols, such as balloons. And, in the case of Kidsaid.com, children can upload their own drawings to share with their community. Even more importantly, “a taker can develop in his or her coping process and become a giver” (Döveling, 2015, p. 418). In other words, children and adolescents might transition from “loss oriented” to “restoration-oriented coping” (Stroebe & Schut, 2010, p. 277 cited in Döveling, 2015, p. 403). Within this framework, children move from “processing some aspect of the loss experience itself” to “focusing on what needs to be dealt with (e.g. social loneliness), and how it is dealt with (e.g. by avoiding solitariness” (Stroebe & Schut, 1999, pp. 212-214, cited in Döveling, 2015, p. 407). Through these spaces then, children and adolescents learn to create, interact, and transform.
So, how do these sites work? Some sites, such as Kidsaid.com require the permission of a parent, but parents and adults aren’t allowed to participate. A therapist, such as Lynn, helps a volunteer oversee the interactions, but only steps in during rare circumstances. The philosophy behind this method is to let children help each other and speak openly. Certainly, these sites may seem like a very public place to express grief, and “microblogs are changing the way people are mourning across the planet by creating a public space for it” (Taubert, et al., 2014, p. 16). Creating a public space for something that people don’t normally talk about, such as death, can contribute positively to mental health. To help protect children, some sites ask the children to use nicknames and not give out personal information. Some require further verification to ensure safety. Palmer, et al. adds, “As always, youth should be cautioned about privacy and safety when using the Internet” (2016, p. 279).
Social media sites sometimes serve to help children who find themselves in remote, rural parts of the world. Some of these children respond to each others’ posts. Some do not. Some may use a site once or they may use the site for years to build friendships and community. If technology is available, children are resourceful enough to use it to heal. As Lynn observes, “Human beings are inherently resilient. People tend to pull themselves back together.”
Döveling, Katrin. (2017). Online Emotion Regulation in Digitally Mediated Bereavement. Why Age and Kind of Loss Matter in Grieving Online. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 61(1), pp. 41-57.
–. (2015) Help Me I am So Alone. Online Emotional Self-Disclosure in Shared Coping Processes of Children and Adolescents on Social Networking Platforms. De Gruyter Mouton/Communications, 40(4), pp. 403-423.
Lynn, Cendra. (2017, May 10). Phone Interview.
Palmer, Michelle, Micah Saviet, & Jeremy Tourish (2016). Understanding and Supporting Grieving Adolescents and Young Adults. Pediatric Nursing, 42(6), pp. 275-281.
Taubert, Mark, Gareth Watts, Jason Boland, & Lukas Radbruch (2014). Palliative Social Media, 4, pp. 13-18.