This post was originally planned as the beginning of a series, but after some thought, I decided that it would be better as a single post.
Does the loss of an online friend count as bereavement?
Late on Saturday night, I was looking at the statistics for the blog, and the search terms people have used to find it. Some seem to be wondering whether the loss of an online friend ‘counts’ as bereavement.
All I can offer is my experience and opinion. Over the years I spent searching for support in dealing with this pain, I came across stories from others who had endured similar experiences, and felt that support was indeed lacking. Generally speaking, society does not yet seem to understand the close bond that can be formed within online friendships – which could be the root of this confusion.
The online edition of the Oxford English Dictionary defines bereavement as ‘the fact or state of being bereaved or deprived of anything.’ As those of us who have experienced grief over the death of an online friend know, it can be an acute sensation in the first weeks and months, therefore the loss of an online friend could certainly be said to count as bereavement.
In the early days following Chris’ death, and even to the present day, I experienced feelings which were more consistent with conventional grief experiences. If the general definition of bereavement is the loss of someone you have loved, then the loss of an online friend certainly counts as such.
It could be argued that those who have lost online friends did not really know the person, but that argument seems insensitive in my view. If people are entitled to a genuine grief experience when a beloved pet or cherished school teacher dies, then why should the loss of an online friend be any different?
People who have experienced the loss of an online friend should be encouraged to let themselves to grieve, as they have nonetheless experienced a loss which will have an impact on their life.
The loss of an online friend may not have an impact which is noticeable to the person’s wider social circle, but it still represents a change in that person’s routine. Conversation with online friends can become a valued part of everyday life, and whilst the bereaved person may not be entirely aware of it, acceptance of the fact that there will be no more conversations takes time.
After a period, it may be possible for the bereaved person to assemble a personal archive of conversations and correspondence, which is a valuable tool in the healing process, even if they are not yet able to look at it.
I took comfort in assembling my ‘archive’ in the days immediately following my first experience of cyberloss. I suddenly felt as though I absolutely had to know where every single conversation was, for fear that losing them would mimic losing Chris all over again.
I spent time making multiple backups of the conversations and emails Chris and I had and exchanged – five years on, I can only look at the documents rarely, but it is reassuring to know that they are safe.
The experience of losing an online friend is as much a loss as any other, and should be recognised as such. As so many other losses, grieving an online friend is about allowing oneself to grieve the lost opportunities, recognising these and honouring them, and recognising the influence and impact that person had on your life.
For that reason and many others, the loss of an online friend does count as bereavement. Just as any other loss, it takes time to accept what has happened, and that can take as long as it takes.
If you have experienced the loss of an online friend and are wondering whether you’re entitled to feel what you’re feeling, I say yes. This person or these people obviously made an impact on your life; otherwise you wouldn’t give their passing a second thought. Allow yourself to feel whatever you’re feeling, and honour them in whatever way you see fit.
Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope it goes some way towards helping you to realise that your feelings are normal and should be respected.
Wishing you peace and strength on your journeys,
 ‘bereavement, n.’ OED Online, March 2012 http://www.oed.com.ezproxy.falmouth.ac.uk/view/Entry/17882?redirectedFrom=bereavement [Accessed 10th June 2012]