ERIC Identifier: ED446331
Publication Date: 2000-07-00
Author: Gary, Juneau M. - Remolino, Linda
Clearinghouse on Counseling and Student Services Greensboro NC.
Coping with Loss and Grief through Online Support Groups.
The death of a loved one is a natural and inevitable life experience. Those
who must cope with the loss, experience various grief reactions. Typically,
people discuss their grief reaction with someone they know or do not discuss it
at all. Current technology now enables people to cope with grief through
participation in online support groups from the comfort and privacy of their
GRIEF AND HEALING
The grief process is typically nonlinear,
repetitive and painful to transcend. It involves adaptation to many changes, and
it is marked by repetitive cycles of progression followed by stagnation or
regression. The three aspects of grief are emotional, physical and behavioral
* Emotional reactions include fear, anxiety, depression, confusion, search
for meaning and anger.
* Physical symptoms include changes in eating and/or sleeping patterns,
fatigue, increased risk for illness and weight increase/decrease.
* Behavioral responses include diminished interest in usual activities,
acting out or withdrawal from and/or rejection of support systems.
Online support groups for loss assist
members in facing the void left by the loss of a loved one and help to reduce
members' feelings of isolation and their sense of feeling overwhelmed. These are
common reactions during the grieving process. Members in an early phase of grief
can share their reactions with others in the group while members in a later
phase can offer support and problem solving. Facing holidays and special
occasions are considered difficult for most members, especially if this will be
their first occasion or holiday since the loss of a loved one (Weinberg,
Schmale, Uken & Wessel, 1996). Likewise, those who are terminally ill and/or
their loved ones face similar anxieties if they anticipate that approaching
holidays and special occasions may be the last ones they celebrate together. See
Gary and Remolino (2000) for an excerpt from a typical online support group for
Online support groups are a relatively new and growing cyber service. They
can be accessed through use of a computer and modem in conjunction with an
Internet service provider (ISP) such as America Online (AOL). Once connected
through an ISP, online support groups may also be reached through Internet
portals (e.g., Yahoo) or through specialized web sites (e.g.,
www.death-dying.com). Gary and Remolino (2000) provide a sample of websites for
loss and grief. Each ISP, website or portal sets its own standards and
procedures regarding regulations, quality control, crisis management,
disclaimers and training of group leaders.
IMMEDIATE RESPONSE TO GRIEF ONLINE
Traumatic events that
were once considered local dramas acquire national and international
significance as a result of instant and extensive media coverage. Coverage of
events such as the numerous school shootings and their resulting deaths between
1997 and 1999 illustrates this point. These events produced a range of emotional
reactions in victims and television viewers, including anger, anxiety,
depression, and fear. Noteworthy is the role that the Internet is playing in
helping people to cope immediately with tragedies involving death such as the
recent school shootings. For instance, many ISPs immediately responded by
establishing online support groups devoted to a particular school shooting.
People went online to try to understand these school tragedies, to reach out to
others, to learn how to make schools safe, to cope with school violence, to
handle grief reactions, and to recognize danger signs of violence in high-risk
Once the shock wore off and the grieving began, online support groups for
loss were overwhelmed in the days and weeks following many of the school
shootings. New members, either from the local area of the shootings or from
among television viewers, joined veteran online support group members to seek
support and to express anger, outrage, and other emotions. Dialogues were
strained, and many members seemed to experience inhibition when disclosing
intimate feelings. Sessions required strong facilitation skills to encourage
participation. Perhaps the strain was partially due to numbness caused by the
current trauma, new members' lack of familiarity with the mechanics of online
support groups, awkwardness about the online support group's interactive
process, or feel overwhelmed by the wide range of emotions expressed online. For
veteran members who were already coping with a personal loss, the school
tragedies or other traumatic news events can resurrect previous and unresolved
loss issues and unrelated grief issues.
BENEFITS OF ONLINE SUPPORT GROUPS FOR LOSS
Access to Support. Intimate, honest dialogues and expressions of grief can be
stigmatizing. Relatives and neighbors may be overwhelmed or unable to offer
support and avoid the subject, pushing the frustrated and grieving person into
isolation. Online support groups reduce their sense of isolation and loneliness,
a predominant reaction for most people in the midst of the grief process or for
those who might otherwise grieve alone and not seek a face-to-face support group
or support person (Weinberg et al., 1996).
* Specialized Online Support Groups. Some loss groups may need to be age-
and/or gender-specific or focus on specific needs or characteristics of loss
(Koocher, 1996). Specialized online support groups can be formed more
successfully than traditional support groups that are limited by geographic
boundaries. For example, teens and children may need age-specific groups in
order to discuss loss issues based on their developmental level (Koocher, 1996).
They may be encountering their first experience with death, may be uncomfortable
seeking help from adults or may be unable to relate to adult issues about loss
in adult online support groups. Similarly, adults may encounter difficulty
helping teens and children cope with grief. Youth can access online support
groups as long as a parental security block has not been imposed. Parents,
however, should be aware of their child's Internet use and should be encouraged
to capitalize on the youth's participation in online support groups to
strengthen family communication.
* Universality of Grief. Others struggle, too, and this is not always evident
to grieving people who tend to isolate themselves. Universality unites people as
they share similar thoughts, feelings, fears, and/or reactions (Yalom, 1995)
with their cybercommunity. They realize that grief is normal, they feel
validated, and they heal as they complete the grief process.
LIMITATIONS OF ONLINE SUPPORT GROUPS FOR LOSS
Breaches. Limit the disclosure of personal and identifying information when
registering for and participating in on-line support groups. Grieving members
who are often lonely and feel isolated or desperate may attempt to continue
conversations with specific members at the conclusion of a session. Personal
communication between members is discouraged as it can culminate in the exchange
of identifying information, thus placing a vulnerable member at risk for
cyberstalking or at risk for one's physical safety and privacy.
* Differing Stages of Group Development and Phases of Grief. Online support
groups for loss are open continuously to new membership. Fluctuations in
membership make it difficult for online support groups to maintain the working
stage of group development for extended periods (Corey & Corey, 1997). Group
cohesion is also diluted by each member's individual grief reactions, resulting
in a diverse membership that needs support throughout the grief process. These
limitations reduce the efficacy of online support groups as a sole support
source for some members.
* Hoax Perpetuations. People with unscrupulous motives can deceive an online
support group, however, online support groups for loss do not attract many
* Limited Feedback. Those with cultural or familial barriers that inhibit
open discussions about death or emotional expressions of grief may perceive less
personal feedback, absence of face-to-face contact, decreased intimacy and
reduced intensity as incentives to participate.
* Accountability. Participation in online support groups raises some
accountability, ethical and legal questions that currently remain unanswered.
Accountability is unclear and confusing because online support groups function
without regard to geographic borders or local or national laws. Furthermore,
professional requirements (or lack of) for hosts are inconsistent.
Online support groups provide assistance by
linking grieving people who seek support, especially if support is not available
in their local community. However, they are not appropriate for everyone and
should not be considered a panacea.
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