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The dos and don'ts of online condolences

We're social creatures, and our instinct is to reach out to other humans when we're grieving about a loss.
We're social creatures, and our instinct is to reach out to other humans when we're grieving about a loss.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Use e-mail (and a physical card) to send a note expressing your condolences
  • When your friend is dealing with grief, it's really not about you
  • It's OK to send another e-mail sharing something sweet and personal

Editor's note: Brenna Ehrlich and Andrea Bartz are the sarcastic brains behind humor blog and book "Stuff Hipsters Hate." When they're not trolling Brooklyn for new material, Ehrlich works as a senior writer at MTV, and Bartz is a senior editor at Psychology Today. Got a question about etiquette in the digital world? Contact them at netiquette@cnn.com.

(CNN) -- Last week, the passing of our modern-day Thomas Edison turned our perpetual baseless ennui into legit reflective sadness.

When Princess Diana died in a car accident 14 years ago, most of us found out via television, newspapers or word of mouth. Last week, mounds of us got the news about Apple's Steve Jobs digitally.

With a strange sense of irony and homage, I got the breaking news alert on my iPhone, retweeted BoingBoing's cool tribute from my iPad, then spent too many hours over the next few days reading tributes from my Macbook at home or my Mac Mini at work.

Nowadays, the Internet has become the go-to medium for so many once-intimate exchanges: announcing an engagement or pregnancy, wishing someone a happy birthday, sharing life updates after a decade of radio silence. And on darker days, we add to that list: giving condolences, paying homage to the deceased and sharing in our personal sense of loss.

A 2010 study from the University of Illinois investigated how people use the Internet to grieve. Following a campus shooting, researchers noticed that students promptly changed their Facebook profile pictures to memorial ribbons and joined groups in support of fellow students. We're social creatures, and our instinct is to reach out to other humans when we're distressed. But did students' swift reactions -- digital means of tapping into their communities -- actually help them to heal?

Not exactly, according to researchers; while most students said their online activities made them feel better, objective data showed that the tweets, texts and virtual vigils had no effect on their recovery from depression or post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms. Still, the study suggests that the online group hugs weren't harmful to their psychological health.

In short: Going online to help process your grief is a perfectly acceptable step.

While most of us couldn't send e-love to the Jobs family directly, at some point or another we all face the sad situation of a dear friend experiencing loss. And never is the netiquette dance more delicate than when we're showing our human side in pixels and pings.

Here are a few dos and don'ts for supporting a friend who's lost someone he or she loved. (Don't worry, we'll bring the snark back next week.)

DO consider the WWW an unobtrusive way to show your support.

Unless you and the bereaved are extremely close, she probably doesn't want to cry into the phone right now. Use e-mail to send a note expressing your condolences and reaffirming your love and support. Then send a real-life card. And if you do get to see your friend IRL (that's In Real Life, folks), hug him or her like crazy. Hugs have an instant calming effect, research shows.

DON'T expect to hear back.

A co-worker once shared a tale with me: After her husband died, one contact sent her flowers. A few weeks later, said contact e-mailed, asking in a brusque and passive-aggressive voice if my colleague had received the flowers, because, ahem, she never received a thank-you note.

So, note to self-involved people: Get over yourself. When your friend is dealing with grief, it's really not about you. Trust that she got your e-mail and card (and flowers and whatever else) and that she appreciated the gesture, calmed by the signal of your love and support. Don't ever assume that she doesn't want an additional reminder of her loss. Don't stress about not knowing what to write. Just hearing expressions of kindness will help.

DO keep up the gentle reminders that eventually, life will return to a new normal.

After a few weeks, even if you haven't heard back from your grieving friend, it's OK to send another e-mail sharing something sweet and personal (e.g., "Yadda yadda happened today and it reminded me of the time we got majorly lost on the drive down to Bonnaroo and spent the night illegally parked in a campgrounds -- I'll never forget that adventure") and reiterating that he is in your thoughts and that you're around if he ever wants to talk or be distracted.

Don't be too glib (this is not the time to recount that crazy drunken Fashion Week after party where Billy Crudup danced like a madman and Lewis Black tried to hook up with your 21-year-old sister); just serve as a gentle reminder of the life your friend is eventually going to slip back into.

(And if you are the bereaved: When you are beginning to feel better, and want to begin acting more normal again around your friends, this is the right time to write something positive on your Facebook wall or e-mail your clique with a funny blog you've discovered. Your loved ones' sigh of relief at the knowledge that you're beginning to feel like YOU again will be heard 'round the interwebs.)

DON'T use public means to say private things.

One last tip: If your friend hasn't used Twitter, Facebook, his personal blog, etc. to announce the passing of a loved one, you shouldn't share the news yourself by, say, plopping an "I'm so sorry for your loss, bro" post on his Facebook wall. You could generate a lot of unwanted querying from the rest of his circle, and perhaps he doesn't want his 1,277 closest digital friends knowing about his private grief.

Give him the chance to deal in his own way, gently remind him that you're there, and in time, you'll be back to swapping stupid cat blogs and funny e-mails like the plugged-in friends you are.

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