The Face of Grieving: How Students Handle Death in a Digital World

I knew I would be early. It was approximately two hours prior to the start of the Soaring Ahead ceremony, our eighth-grade graduation, and I was anxious to set up the video slideshow I had created for this grand event.

As I entered the quiet gymnasium that Thursday, the evening before the students’ last day of school, two sound technicians worked busily to prepare for the more than 1,000 proud parents, students, and educators who would soon be arriving. I felt a sense of purpose and elation, as I had spent the past few months gathering and capturing images, music, and video, hoping to encapsulate the eighth graders’ past three years of growth at our middle school and highlight the impact they made on our hearts. It was to be an emotional evening.

Looking back now, it is a bit surreal knowing that one of those children we watched over for those three years and celebrated that night would not be alive the next day.

A Community in Shock

Situated approximately 50 miles northeast of New York City, our community is a collection of families that place great value on their children’s education. It is a wonderful place to teach and, contrary to the occasional complaints of our adolescents, a place the children are proud to call home.

The events of Friday, June 13 had an intoxicating, carefree feel to them, as it was the last day for students at school—their “home away from home.” As the day concluded and the students made their way to the exits, many were elated and others saddened. Teachers excitedly discussed their plans to free themselves from the responsibility of duty and begin the decompressing process. I, along with a handful of others, would return Monday to tie up loose ends and work on curriculum projects.

The phone call came Saturday morning. Nick, one of the eighth graders, was killed while riding his ATV Friday afternoon, just hours after leaving school. It was devastating news.

On Monday morning, all staff members assembled in the front lobby to hear what information the administrators could share. They gave us the details about the services for Nick and let us know what times grief counselors would be available for students at the school.

Amidst the tears, a staff member mentioned that a Facebook page had been created in Nick’s honor and that students had begun posting their thoughts. I logged into my Facebook account several days later and found the page dedicated to him.

Many people posted comments about a kind-hearted, quiet boy, one whom many lamented not getting to know better. Some discussed events they were planning in remembrance of Nick, inviting everyone interested to join them at a specific place and time. There were personal memories from parents, cousins, and friends of the family that gave glimpses into the boy many did not know well. There were postings from people in more than a dozen towns, several states, and other countries, including Portugal and Germany.

I realized that I was looking at something unique, something that I had not experienced before in my lifetime. Throughout my youth, and even my early professional career, I had dealt with the loss of classmates, family, friends, and even students in my classroom. However, I had never before been part of such an immediate collaboration of grieving. This social networking site was a portal into which thousands of people could peer while they collectively participated in the healing process.

Within a few days, many of the grieving voices from the pages of Facebook were gathered at a thoughtful service not far from our school. Saddened hearts met with warm embraces. There were those who felt cheated by Nick’s death and others who realized that they had taken life for granted lately.

It was a beautiful summer afternoon, yet a silent despair hung over the crowd like a storm cloud. The service would end and those attending would leave quietly. For some, however, the discussion that began on Facebook days earlier would continue. The Facebook page created in Nick’s remembrance was bringing together those people who felt most comfortable sharing their feelings online.

Unlikely Friendships

During the months after the memorial service, I followed the online discussions as many of my past students continued to post their thoughts. I was struck by the sincerity and love with which the authors wrote. I always knew that there was an immeasurable depth in the hearts of these children, yet I did not realize how the grief surrounding Nick’s death would touch such a vast range of students.

As I read their comments, I knew that most of these students rarely spoke to each other in school. Some knew Nick well; others had not spoken to him in months or years. Some never had the chance to even meet him. But what began to emerge on the pages of Facebook was a record of shared anguish and pain. Whether that pain took the form of regret, sadness, frustration, or anger, it was nonetheless shared.

In her 1998 book Families Making Sense Out of Death, Janice Winchester Nadeau discusses how people’s social surroundings and culture can often direct the process of grieving. She notes that while a wide range of emotions can often accompany the grieving process, the one thing that all cultures have in common is the benefit of sharing one’s emotions with others. As one boy by the name of Jake wrote on Nick’s page, “The best cure for losing a loved one, or even a person you never got to really know, is to stand together.”

Facebook provided a safe place for people to share these emotions. More importantly, it provided a place for children to see and hear from students outside their peer circles. Facebook, essentially, provided a heart, mind, and soul to faces that children passed in the hallways day after day. Suddenly these faces shared more than space in hallway or classroom.

The Facebook Effect

There was no way for Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook, to anticipate the effects of the social networking site that he created at Harvard University back in October 2003. What began as a social networking tool at Harvard and Boston-area universities exploded in popularity over the next several years into one of the largest social networking sites in the world.

On September 26, 2006, Facebook opened membership to anyone over the age of 13 with a valid e-mail address, and in October 2008 the company opened its first international headquarters in Ireland. Today, Facebook has more than 200 million members, adding 600,000 to 700,000 new members each day. A quick search for groups related to “grieving,” “memory,” or “death” yields thousands of individual pages established for family members and friends in more than 180 countries. Within each of these individual pages are hundreds and thousands of posts. The numbers are staggering.

Facebook and similar Web 2.0 applications have created a monumental platform for collaboration, dissemination, and participation in the world in which we live. Similarly, for those who find it to be a comfortable medium, it has become an immense platform for collaboration, dissemination, and participation in the grieving process.

The Next Step

We all need to communicate to find meaning in life. For Nick’s friends, family, and the caring souls who log in to read or post on his page, the healing process will continue.

For those who find comfort in the relative anonymity of Facebook, this might be the only time they are able to grieve collectively. For those students who must confront the death of a classmate, Facebook may facilitate some level of catharsis, providing a forum more palatable than the school psychologist’s office.

Perhaps it could inspire a knock on that same office door.

Maybe, if we are fortunate, two children who had never spoken before in school will log in, find common ground in tragedy, and discover how similar they really are.

Previously published in Middle Ground magazine, February 2010

John Priest teaches in Wilton, Connecticut, and is a doctoral candidate in leadership at Western Connecticut State University. E-mail: