On the morning of Feb. 22, several commuters witnessed the tragic suicide of Azin Jones, 41, who jumped from the State Park Drive overpass on Highway 1.
In the days that followed, 71 people poured their support into the comments section of a on the event. Those who knew Jones echoed sentiments that she was “a rare and beautiful shining light.” When her sister commented in disbelief, strangers offered their email addresses if she needed to talk. And when her husband wrote in with his profound grief, they paid their condolences and offered memories of her “infectious spirit” and “bubbly laugh.”
Can such online forums, at Patch and elsewhere, help with grieving—and jump-start healing—after a trauma?
“Now we have the ability to touch people without a time lag,” said Dr. Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center. “That support, even if virtual, is meaningful.”
Any therapeutic situation—whether real or in the virtual world—has to exist within a safe space, said Rutledge, who’s based in Palo Alto. The anonymity of the online world is often what creates such a haven.
“It’s a way for people to share with confidence,” she said. “Online sites allow them to express something they need to express.”
A month before, when a woman jumped to her death from the mezzanine level of a Greenbelt, MD convention center, support also filled the comments section of the that covered the event. Many retold their experiences at the moment of the incident, even if they knew nothing about the woman beforehand.
Making painful disclosures online can be a way for people to become comfortable revealing their thoughts in real life, according to Rutledge. “It can be a cathartic first step,” she said, adding that online forums cannot wholly satisfy the healing process, just help with it.
Yet the lack of censorship of online forums is something to be weary of, said Sue Brandy, a clinical social worker who’s a member of the Central Coast Emergency Response Team.
Online forums can subject users to criticism and judgment, or to those who don't offer the best advice, said Brandy.
“It seems like [users] would need to be monitored from people who haven’t yet healed themselves,” said Brandy, who helps witnesses of trauma piece together events in order to heal.
To cope with a trauma, said Brandy, people should take care of themselves.
“People can go into a bit of denial, so they need to be present and acknowledge their feelings,” said Brandy.
Those dealing with a trauma should get adequate rest, eat well and possibly write any intrusive thoughts in a journal. If such thoughts, nightmares or anxieties persist after a month to six weeks, the person should consider seeking help.
“Having a reaction to trauma is a normal reaction to an abnormal event,” said Brandy.
The reaction to Jones' death manifested itself online for two weeks after her untimely departure.
Some commenters left poems, while others left the numbers of suicide prevention groups or churches. Others recalled how she was “the life of the party” who would dance the night away. One woman did not know her but said she'd also lost someone close to suicide, and she left her email.
Another woman wanted friends and family to know that “without this page, u would not know how much love n support u have from complete strangers.”