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Learning to Cope With the Death of a Child: Grieving Through Social Networks

The death of a child is said to be the most stressful of all the possible losses individuals may experience in life. Parental grief has been recognized as the most intense and overwhelming of all forms of grief, a particularly severe type of loss that tends to ignite extreme distress or grief over an extended period of time. Theoretical understandings of parental grief have gone from traditional perspectives emphasizing concepts of breaking bonds, or of letting go of one’s relationship with the dead, to new perspectives focusing on continuing bonds and holding on. These new understandings often counteracts with social norms and expectations by society. Existing support structures in society and healthcare systems are unable to efficiently provide for the long-term therapeutic support needed by grieving parents. As the need for this support is not provided, other structures emerge and it is in situations such as these that lay experts may provide a necessary social service. Online grief communities represent relatively new forms of peer support hitherto only sparsely studied from a multi-disciplinary approach.

The overall purpose of this pilot study is to further contribute to our understanding of how technological affordances of online social networks act as significant resources for learning to cope with grief and mourning, following the death of a child. Three interconnected themes and questions will be of central concern:

  • Given that traditional grief support structures in society are experienced as insufficient, how do online technologies evolve as alternatives? What affordances does the technology give the bereaved members in the community?
  • Given that norms of “holding-on” counteracts with social norms of grief and expectations in wider society, what are the dynamics of cultural norms of holding-on online? How are these expressed and do these differ and overlap with norms outside of the community?
  • How is knowledge and experience of the death of a child, distributed within the community, shared and exchanged as resources in learning to cope with life in the wider setting? How are bereaved parents socialized into this culture of holding-on?

The pilot study, begun in late 2012, with the aim of gaining insight into bereaved parents’ use of an online grief support community in a closed discussion group on the social network site Facebook. Preliminary results show that the technological affordances of online social networks give extended access to other grieving parents, supporting the exchange of experience and knowledge and creating a sense of community in ways that fill an urgent need for the bereaved, allowing for profound use of social networks which is often perceived as shallow media. The community and interaction in the closed group act as significant resources for learning to cope with death, grief and mourning. These preliminary findings support current research, which argue for a new understanding of grief. Norms of behaviour seem to be developed within the group, reflecting the prolonged need of the members to reminisce and talk about their deceased children. What is shared within the group through text and imagery differs quite remarkably from what is accepted outside the group, both in wider society and in other online contexts. Furthermore, the results from the pilot study, i.e. empirically grounded knowledge of how the technological affordances of online social networks can support the long-term needs of grieving parents, will have the potential to contribute to and develop the work and practices of existing support structures off-line and to modulate the polarization between the paradigms of holding-on and letting-go.

More about the project

For more information about the project contact:

Ylva Hård af Segerstad, E-mail


Page Manager: Elin Johansson|Last update: 4/25/2013

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