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'Letters to Newtown' and the psychology of grieving online

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In the months since the tragic massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary, Newtown, Conn. has been inundated with gifts and letters from around the world. Mail filled entire warehouses  and memorials cropped up all over town, in front of churches and on people’s lawns. Though many of the larger memorials were taken down not long after the shooting, reminders of the December 14th tragedy remain.

Newtown is not the first incident that has inspired mourning en masse. New York handled a high volume of donations and sentimental letters in the wake of the 9/11 attacks – many other prominent deaths and mass shootings have been followed by an influx of emotional support by mail.

What makes Newtown different? Times are changing. Coverage of the Sandy Hook shooting was fast paced and ubiquitous, the story monopolized news coverage, with details and corrections rolling in for days. The response from those grieving all over the world was just as fast – social media reactions came in at lightning speed, and the volume of mail in the weeks that followed was enormous.

Ross MacDonald, “Mother Jones” contributor and Newtown resident, watched as the town erected and dissembled memorials. The ones built outside the school and a town church were quickly weathered and, according to MacDonald, difficult to face day-to-day for town residents, especially those who lost someone in the shooting. The materials used for the memorials were incinerated – the ashes will be incorporated into a permanent future memorial, but construction may be years off.

Meanwhile, the town continued to receive mail from across the globe, and town officials decided that the letters and gifts would be burned and added to the ashes to be incorporated into the future memorial. MacDonald, who had seen the letters in person, made an appeal – the letters should be saved, documented, kept as folk art.

With support from the town, “Mother Jones,” and blogging site Tumblr Storyboard, MacDonald began to catalog the mail. The town library and the Smithsonian Museum assisted in the archiving process, and volunteers gathered to photograph and scan letters to be uploaded to the project website, Letters to Newtown

“I consider [the letters] historic documents of a historic event, but they’re also part of the healing process to the people here,” MacDonald said on AirTalk. 

The images are heartbreaking and haunting. Some are beautiful pieces of art; many are notes from children expressing their sympathies. The result is a visually compelling and extremely resonant motif of grief.

Just looking at the Letters to Newtown project is enough to trigger the sense of sadness and loss that struck the world after the shooting, but for MacDonald and the others working on the project, the mourning process hit even harder. MacDonald recalls the difficulty of working with the letters for hours each day, how the volunteers cried, and how visibly shaken they became.

“I did not expect to have such a strong reaction to them...” MacDonald said. “It was incredibly powerful.” 

Karen North, Ph.D., a psychologist and expert in online communities at the University of Southern California, says that taking the grief process online can have a powerful effect. For people at the epicenter of a tragedy, like the families of those killed in the Newtown shooting, coming face to face with reminders of the traumatic event can be debilitating. Letters to Newtown is an extensive and readily accessible project, but it’s not in plain view.

“Especially for the people who were personally affected by this tragedy, they now don’t have to go somewhere and be in public in order to look at these kinds of contributions,” North said. “They can sit at home they can look at the messages, they can cry, they can heal, they can develop closure. And years from now they’ll be able to look back on this and remember their loved ones or remember how much love was sent to them from all over the country and all over the world.”

Relegating the grief process to an internet community can be helpful for those who are experiencing the tragedy firsthand. Rather than being forced to confront a memorial on the side of the road or a stranger offering condolences in the supermarket, victims’ families are able to set boundaries for mourning.

But what about the grieving process for the strangers writing from afar? Is their empathy genuine? Is it interpreted as such? North points out that though many contributors to these group mourning projects may be acting out of genuine empathy, they aren’t experiencing anything close to the loss that the immediately affected families feel. 

“We have to remember that while this is sort of a subject of fascination for the rest of us, actual people died and their family members are trying to deal with this very public mourning for their very private experience,” North said. “This will give them places to go to look at the event in years to come as they remember it and want to look back or want to process the information and develop some closure.” 

MacDonald says that in his interactions with representatives for the victims’ families, reaction to the archiving project has been positive – those who have been most intensely impacted feel that the letters show support, and want them preserved. MacDonald says that one family member told him that some of the families are doing their own, smaller versions of Letters to Newtown. 

“All of the mail that’s addressed to the families goes directly to them,” MacDonald said. “They go once a week to the post office, pick up the boxes of mail, photograph and scan the stuff that they think is worth passing on to everyone and then they send out a mass email to the extended family.”

Online grieving is not unique to large-scale tragedy. Social media has changed the way many people mourn. Dealing with traumatic events such as serious illness, injury, or loss has come to include difficult online announcements, handling the virtual footprint left behind by a lost loved one, and coping with the fallout on social media.

North suggests that while opening oneself up to condolences via the internet breaks down some potentially-helpful privacy barriers, networks like Twitter and Facebook can also be helpful for those who are mourning a serious loss. It eases the spread of news – friends and acquaintances are more likely to have heard about a death or traumatic life event, sparing the grieving party many awkward explanations. 

Status updates can also be an asset; simple updates can alert others to the fact that someone may be moving on from the place where a trauma overwhelms their life.

Have you dealt with the grief process online? Do you prefer privacy while you mourn, or can the support of an online community be beneficial? Is group grief a natural impulse? Is it healthy?

Ross MacDonald, Mother Jones contributor and creator of the Letters to Newtown project

Karen North, Ph.D., Director, Annenberg Program on Online Communities, USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism; psychologist specializing in online communities