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Eternal friends? Afterlife on Facebook — what people are doing, what rabbis think

ON April 11, 2011, at 12:02 a.m., Kiri Basner-Churches posted the following comment on her grandmother Anita Churches’ Facebook page — nine months after Churches died on Aug. 1, 2010:

“ ‘In this sweet madness, oh this glorious sadness that brings me to my knees, in the arms of the angel’; ‘I miss you most of all when autumn leaves start to fall’ . . .

“For some reason my iPod is shuffling through every beautiful song that reminds me of you, and I know you’re behind this.

“G’ma! I’m missing you a lot tonight. There’s so much we could be discussing right now . . . guess we still do, only in a different way.”

Social networking, utilized to connect with old high school friends and foment global revolutions, has opened a new portal to grieving in the digital age.

Many others have created a waterfall of posts on Churches’ Facebook wall — including daughters Stephanie Rossi and Barbara Murray, several grandchildren and many  close friends

Similar to whispers uttered by loved ones visiting the grave in the cemetery, Churches’ family wants to update her on the latest news and reassure her that their love survives.

Kiri, 20, who studies at the Stella Adler Academy of Acting in Los Angeles, says her cousin Gabrielle posted the first message on the Facebook page a few months after their grandmother’s death.

“I saw it and felt it was so nice that she was sharing her thoughts with everyone,” Kiri says. “In February, I posted a picture of Grandma that few had ever seen.”

Structured as an ongoing conversation between family members, the comments are usually addressed to Churches in the first person.

“I feel like I’m talking to her,” Kiri admits. “That’s why I don’t write in the third person. Grandma is with me, but not in a physical sense. Facebook keeps her alive for us in this world.

“We’re used to messaging family and friends on a regular basis. When someone close passes away and their page is empty and devoid of comments, you instinctively want to write on that page.”

While many grieving individuals choose to articulate sentiments in diaries and journals, Kiri prefers the Internet’s public format “because I can read what my whole family is feeling.

“I can’t hear Grandma with my ears, but I feel her in my heart,” she says. “If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t write her so much.”

But is this new way of relating to the dead in accordance with Jewish tradition?

RABBI Raphael Leban, outreach director for The Jewish Experience, hesitates to recommend conversations on a deceased person’s Facebook page because they detour from traditional Jewish mourning practices.

“My gut reaction is that Churches’ family is expressing a well-intentioned attitude of remembering a loved one, which is beautiful,” he says.

Still, Leban questions whether this online “chit chat,” however loving, is the appropriate way to achieve the desired resolution of a loved one’s loss.

“There are specific acts that we can do on behalf of the deceased that bestow honor to them, such as living in Torah, performing mitzvot and giving tzedakah,” he says.

“I’m concerned that using Facebook in this manner is a departure from millennia-old guidelines that help us achieve an appropriate relationship with the departed soul.”

But the concept that the dead are aware of the living is fundamental in Judaism, he stresses.

“Souls that have left this world reside in a place of perfect clarity,” Leban says, “beyond the finite world, beyond time itself. They ‘get it.’ They know more than we do. And they are aware of us.”

Rabbi Jay TelRav, Temple Sinai’s associate rabbi, is excited about this new Facebook phenomenon.

Sharing feelings about the deceased on his or her Facebook page offers “the potential for creating new ritual traditions in the digital age,” he says.

“I’ve been reading  a lot of articles about what you do with digital entries of those who die. For example, when Grandpa dies, you delete his email.

“But this is just the opposite — it preserves emotion digitally.”

Not long ago, Rabbi TelRav saw a headstone with a web address inscribed on the back at a local cemetery.

“Obviously, I didn’t follow the link,” he says.

But Facebook “is such an interesting way to ensure that a loved one’s soul remains bound up in the bonds of everlasting life,” Rabbi TelRav says.

“As long as we’re expanding our notion of how to maintain relationships with the living, why not apply that line of thought to those who have passed on from this world?

“Jews have always been good at using our tradition to guide us in the modern world, and this is a wonderful and healthy application of that.

“It opens up a new frontier.”

CHURCHES, a longtime Denver educator who belonged to Temple Sinai, put up her Facebook page “about two or three years ago, probably at the urging of one of the grandkids,” says Stephanie Rossi, her eldest daughter.

“It was a new experience for her.”

In the beginning, the Churches primarily used the site for social networking purposes.

“Our family is spread out all over the place,” Rossi says. “My brother Danny lives in Australia. I called it family networking.”

Following Churches’ death, there was no formal family decision regarding her Facebook page.

“We never even talked about it,” Rossi says.

Taken as a whole, the Facebook entries chronicle the chronology of healing — from pain and disbelief to tentative acceptance

On Feb. 1, 2011, the six-month anniversary of Churches’ death, granddaughter Gabrielle wrote, “It’s been the longest, as well as the shortest, six months of my life . . . Kingston [her sister Jennifer’s son] and I still talk about you. I want him to remember what an amazing woman his great-grandmother was . . . Love you.”

Five months later, she reflected, “I miss your wisdom, your giggle, your eyes. I miss getting on Skype when I had an awful day and you helping me through it.

“I miss talking to you on a great day when you were excited for me, for my future . . . Some days are much harder than others. But I know you’re still with me, and that keeps me going. I miss you, grandma. So much.”

As Passover approached, daughter Barbara expressed sadness and confusion because her mother would be absent from the seder table for the first time.

Rossi’s posts are brief stars of poignancy and light:

“Hi mom — I hear you every day, especially when I am grading essays!!! Love you.”

“I miss you momma.”

“It’s just comforting,” Rossi says of the opportunity to voice her emotions via Facebook.  “Even if I say it out loud, there’s something special about writing it down.”

ANITA Churches, who was diagnosed with oral cancer six years ago, beat the disease with all the weapons at her disposal — temporarily.

In 2009, the cancer recurred and spread to her lymph nodes and other parts of her body. One year ago this week, Churches entered the hospital. She died three weeks later.

Illness and a penetrating intellect had taught her that human existence, while fragile and transitory, should be cherished to its last drop.

At some unspecified moment, Churches distributed a missive to her family that reads like an Ethical Will and a testament of love.

Gabrielle posted it on her grandmother’s Facebook page this June:

“To my children, grands and greats: Never forget who you are and where you come from. If you don’t know, find out.

“You are the sum of many parts and your heritage is awesome. Never get too far away to remember that.

“And the message I can never say too often or too strongly: I love you all.”

It’s not uncommon for people to catch a glimpse of the deceased in a butterfly, a certain scent or a tingling sensation.

Churches’ family has experienced all of the above, and more.

“I had breakfast with a friend of my mother’s recently, and I know Mom was there,” Rossi says. “Such a powerful warmth came over me.”

Jews are commanded to remember the dead by reciting the kaddish, lighting yahrzeit candles and giving tzedakah.

But as time passes, grief assumes its own character and rhythm.

“I have no solid explanation of why Facebook helps me deal with my mother’s death,” Rossi says. “All I know is that it comforts me.”

Copyright © 2011 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Andrea Jacobs

IJN Senior Writer |

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