Julian Lujan, who attended ThunderRidge High School in Highlands Ranch, died after accidentally falling from a cliff last June soon after graduating from Colorado State University.
His older sister, Christina, used social media to spread word of her family’s tragedy.
“It was the best method for us to, unfortunately, convey what had happened,” she said. “It was a way for us to tell everyone rather than having to tell people one by one.”
More and more, social media is becoming an outlet to not only do just that — communicate what has happened in a simple, immediate way — but also a forum in which to express grief and impart comfort during times of tragedy and sorrow.
Social media provides a digital community that allows users to share stories and positive wishes during the grieving process, which can often help those affected carry the burden of loss, said Kim Gorgens, associate professor of clinical psychology at University of Denver.
“Grieving rituals have always been about exaggerating a sense of community at that period of time,” she said. “Anything that makes that more accessible and available on a larger scale can be a very good thing.”
It’s not surprising that social media has evolved as a grieving platform, considering that 72 percent of American adults use Facebook and 69 percent of those users regularly see news about people and events in their communities on the site, according to Pew Research Center.
Sharing memories, extending support
Julia Kapustka, who met Lujan while attending Colorado State University, described him as one of the best people she’d ever met. She found out about his death, which occurred at a Larimer County reservoir, from a status on Facebook.
After Kapustka let the sudden loss of her friend sink in, she, too, posted a status.
“Still in shock over the loss of such a wonderful person,” she wrote. “William J. Lujan I will remember you forever and am so thankful for every minute that I knew you and got to spend with you, rest in peace.”
She immediately received phone calls from friends and classmates who wanted to know what had happened to him.
Then, they, too, posted comments. Lujan’s profile was filled with hundreds of messages, photos and videos following his death, Kapustka said.
“They were sharing the memories they shared with him,” she said. “And those posts are permanent — something people can always see.”
Similar instances of grieving and remembering occurred on Facebook in the recent deaths of Nicole Weber, a Highlands Ranch-area graduate attending the University of Colorado-Boulder, who died in a December traffic accident, and Colin Brough, a Castle Rock resident shot and killed at Northern Arizona University in October.
Oftentimes, the social media page of someone who has died turns into a memorial page, according to Psychology Today magazine. Even though that person is gone, a virtual identity exists, which combined with the remembrances and grief felt by others can help those left behind cope with loss, experts in the psychology field say.
It has helped Lujan’s sister, Christina, who felt astronomical support from friends, family and her community after her brother’s death.
“The amount of messages we received in the aftermath,” she said. “And to see the memories through writing and pictures that we didn’t even know existed.”
Creating a sense of community
After the Arapahoe High School shooting in 2013, social media became a way for the community to come together in a time of darkness.
Anna Sutterer, now a sophomore at the University of Missouri, was a senior at Arapahoe when a student killed another student, then himself, on school grounds.
Sutterer was hiding with 25 other students in the corner of her AP Lit class when she heard gunshots ring through the school. After the shooting, she was taken to a nearby church before returning home.
That evening, Sutterer saw a flood of posts on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter about the shooting. Some students were expressing their post-traumatic stress while others were blogging updates.
“Someone posted about a candlelight vigil on Facebook,” she remembered.
Fellow students organized the candlelight vigil, which took place a day later and drew hundreds of members from the community. Facebook and Twitter helped spread the word.
But the social media onslaught of information and grieving eventually overloaded Sutterer. She stopped checking social media sites because the posts kept the incident fresh in her mind, she said.
“I couldn’t look at Instagram for a few days because it was just overwhelming,” she said. “I needed to see other things.”
Sutterer held off on posting on social media so she could let everything sink in. In the initial shock period following a tragedy, such as a school shooting, it’s difficult to comprehend what’s going on, she said.
“I understand that people want to be a part of spreading a message,” she said. “But I like to wait and really think about what happened and how it affected me.”
Seeing repeated posts about tragedy can become tiresome for social media users, Gorgens said. It may result in compassion fatigue — an exaggerated stress response or, oppositely, a lack of emotional response.
“The magnitude of your grief response is limited by how many times you have to use it,” she said.
But that’s not the case for every tragedy.
For Christina Lujan, social media allowed friends and family, near and far — even some people she didn’t know — to come together to share their sorrow, offer comfort and support each other.
“Ultimately, they were expressing their condolences,” she said. “It was all done out of a caring place.”