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TMCNet:  An online site is a gathering place for grieving

[April 19, 2010]

An online site is a gathering place for grieving

Apr 19, 2010 (The Kansas City Star - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- The message to Thomas seemed no different than the thousands upon thousands logged onto social networks daily.

"Thinking about winter break," it read, "and how I would love to see you, talk to you ... " The writer, however, wouldn't see Thomas, would not talk to him. Her friend was in a place where even electronic messaging cannot reach -- the grave.

Thomas Fahey, a 26-year-old popular Johnson County horse trainer, died in 2006 when his Comair flight smashed into a hillside near a Lexington, Ky., airport.

The message came from a fellow rider. She wrote it four months ago in his online obituary guest book on, among the 100 most-visited website domains on the Internet, according to comScore, a leading Internet marketing research firm.

The site gets nearly 800,000 monthly visitors who write notes to the dead., which began in 1998 and is one of several similar sites, allows a deceased's memorial to be posted free for 14 days and then charges a fee.

"It makes me feel like he is still here," said Kiera Anglewicz, 33, of Spring Hill, Kan., about Fahey. "I write stuff there, and I think he knows that I'm writing it." Instead of standing in a tranquil cemetery talking to a headstone, many of the living communicate with the gone-but-not-forgotten in cyberspace.

"What these new online social networks provide is an outlet to express two very ancient human desires," said Nicholas A. Christakis, a Harvard doctor and social scientist. "First is to connect and second is people's desire to express grief." Fahey's friends write often, sometimes monthly or whenever life experience jars memory, to share stories, jokes and casual chats with him.

For nearly four years now they have continued connecting with him on his birthday, Christmas and Thanksgiving, and even send him Halloween greetings.

His father, Kevin Fahey, gets choked up talking about his son but likes that his friends speak Thomas' name even online: "I think it was Egyptian pharaohs who believe that as long as a person's name is spoken, his spirit lives." December 2009: "Thomas, ha, ha, ha, did you see me fall on campus the other day? Man I really wish I would have had a tape of it. I would have won some money. ... " James Fowler, a University of California at San Diego professor, co-wrote with Christakis a book titled "Connected," which is about the power of social networking. Fowler sees the phenomenon of online grief networking as "being as much about connecting with other grieving friends of the deceased as it is about connecting in some way with the deceased." Fowler said he wasn't surprised at the writing on a guestbook page. It's similar to how those left behind continue interacting with the dead through verbal conversation.

March 20, 2009, from a friend in Massachusetts: "Hello Thomas. I spoke with your mom yesterday and I'm asking you to check in on her. Remind her that all is well where you are. Send "a nudge" now and then to let her know that you're ok. ..." Although friends and family call Fahey an amazing young man who touched many lives and died too soon, this phenomenon is not unique to him.

James E. Poffinbarger III of Parkville died in September 2003. Seven messages were posted on his guestbook this year.

"Hi Jimmy, we are getting things ready for the trip for Mikey and Stacey's wedding. I have been working on their DVD and shopping and stuff. I am really excited. ... Love mom." Mom is Kim Evans of Parkville who said, "For me, it has kept my son alive." And then there's this on April 1, 2010, one of 10 messages this year to Casey Kirby, 28, of Kansas City, Kan., who died three years ago.

"Been thinking of you a lot lately, more than usual. My grandfather passed, I take comfort in knowing you will be there with him. ... Love Top." Kirby's mother, Debbie Kirby of Lansing, also writes.

"I can come home from work, sit down in quiet at the computer and write my thoughts to Casey." Marita Barkis, director of counseling at the University of Missouri, sees a lot of this. The phenomenon may be more prevalent among the young because "untimely death has more potential for trauma and feelings that this person was deprived of something and we in some way are giving them what we have, which is life." Or, she said, it could be young people today live by Twitter, text messaging and Facebook.

"They have always communicated with their friend electronically, so when the friend is gone, they continue writing to them online." Writing in a place where others can read what they have written and they can read what others have written "creates a collective sense of keeping the person alive by storytelling and continued acknowledgment of them -- the same way we do when we create a scholarship in someone's name," Barkis said.

Or in Fahey's case, the May 29 Thomas Fahey Memorial Charity Horse Show that his family and friends started a year ago at the Longview horse arena.

Written communication with the dead, Barkis said, probably is not new. The technology age has just provided a new means.

"I imagine that before the Internet, people must have written letters to deceased people and put them away," she said.

Anglewicz likes to read the more than 300 messages to Fahey that others have written; she goes back to the site often to read comments over and over. This is what she wrote on Nov. 17, 2008: "There isn't a day that passes that I don't think of you. Gandalf's first horse show was awesome and I thought of you the moment they called our name for the 1st place (I almost cried!!!). I hope you were proud of us! I didn't spend as much time at the Royal this year. ... It just isn't the same without you. .... So tomorrow we all will toast to your birthday and your life." To reach Mara Rose Williams, call 816-234-4419 or send e-mail to

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