In grief, young people turn to the Web for cyber solace

Memorial sites give some comfort, others concern of voyeurism

November 08, 2006|By Tonya Maxwell | Tonya Maxwell,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CHICAGO -- For Jennifer Elliott, checking in daily on the Web site she created to memorialize her best friend is more intimate than visiting the cemetery.

Inseparable since second grade, Elliott and Leila Armin had talked almost every day, even after college set them on different paths. That daily routine ended in June 2005, when Armin, 20, was killed in her suburban Detroit home by her boyfriend.

Elliott has since tried to deal with the violent nature of her friend's death and the void it has left in her life. As with many young Internet surfers, Elliott found some solace in one of the growing number of online tribute sites.

"I visit the site [www.memory-of.com] every day. ... I visit her grave once a week, but online I feel so much closer to her and much closer to her friends and family," said Elliott, 22, of Troy, Mich. "You can't walk around if you're feeling grief one day and act devastated. But this is a place where it's OK to feel sad."

Car crashes, homicides and suicides are top causes of death for people ages 15 to 24, and for a logged-on generation that relies on the Internet for everything from dating to school research, online tributes are as natural as a roadside memorial.

"They have a source now that I didn't have when I was a kid," said George Dickinson, a professor at the College of Charleston in South Carolina and co-author of Understanding Dying, Death, and Bereavement. "It's a way to grieve in private and to share grief too. Grief shared is grief relieved."

But strangers who would never crash a more traditional candlelight vigil are often more comfortable intruding online, sometimes drawing the ire of mourners who think of their hurt as private.

When Illinois State University student Olamide Adeyooye disappeared and was later found murdered, her boyfriend posted messages on her MySpace.com profile:

"I love you so much. I have dreams of protecting you. I'm sorry i wasn't there when you needed me to be," Andy Wildrick wrote after her killer, a neighbor, had been caught.

Wildrick said he felt sick after he saw Adeyooye's profile on MyDeathSpace.com, a year-old site that bills itself as "your global resource for MySpace.com member obituaries." The site lists more than 1,000 profiles, mostly of people who died violently, and has been criticized by some as being voyeuristic.

"I don't like the simple fact that this girl that I love so much is being seen by thousands of random people because something horrific happened to her," Wildrick said.

Visitors to MyDeathSpace - which has a link on MySpace but is not connected to the social networking site - can leave posts about the deaths listed there. Some examine the details of the deceased's lives with compassion and empathy. Others poke fun at the dead.

Wildrick urged Mike Patterson, founder of MyDeathSpace, to remove Adeyooye's profile from the site. When Patterson refused, Wildrick contacted friends, who bombarded MyDeathSpace with incensed e-mails.

With his inbox jammed, Patterson relented and removed any mention of Adeyooye, but he defends his Web site.

The 25-year-old San Francisco paralegal said he created the site to give young people a glimpse of their own mortality. MyDeathSpace should be used as an educational tool by teens "to see there are consequences for their actions," Patterson said.

Tonya Maxwell writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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