06/06/2013 02:45 pm ET Updated Aug 06, 2013

Real Support in a Virtual World

My father died in 1988. When he was diagnosed with cancer, we told only our inner circle of family and friends, mostly because that's what he wanted. As an executive with a major film studio, he felt it was important to keep this deeply personal issue private. It was also a time when people were not as open about such personal information. We kept our concern, our fear and our grief to ourselves.

Now there's Facebook and on any day, you can scroll through your newsfeed and see engagement announcements, pictures of weddings and honeymoons, even sonograms and videos of baby's first steps. You'll also see people who are scared or sick, openly reaching out in their time of need for support.

Back in 1988, at 25 and losing my father, I didn't have a lot of support. I was scared. I didn't know how to handle the enormous rush of emotions I was feeling. We had a "family shrink," but he was more of a friend than a therapist. Unfortunately, he admired my father so much, he was having as difficult a time as we were. Telling a college friend the news must have been so hard for her. At least that's what I came to believe because she never contacted me again, not until Facebook, many years later.

We all know that Facebook reunites friends who haven't seen each other for years. But what some may not realize is, that it has literally changed the face of illness, death and grief and offers a new kind of real support in a virtual world.

The first time I noticed someone reaching out for support on Facebook, it felt strange to me. I didn't really understand it. Then it hit me. Facebook has changed how we approach grief. On Facebook, boundaries can be crossed. People turn to the virtual world of Facebook for comfort. You can tell your story, invite thousands to pray for you and overnight, your wall will be tagged with inspirational quotes and poems, pictures and virtual hugs and kisses sending real love. This new dimension of support offers an outlet for the grieving.

I sometimes wonder what it would have been like to have Facebook as I was going through my father's impending death. At the funeral we all shared stories about how strong he was, how funny, how kind, how larger-than-life a man he was. Together we laughed and cried. But when the funeral is over the visitors go home and the quiet enters. Eventually the check-in calls stop coming as life goes on and we are left with a hole in our hearts that feels as if it will never heal.

What if there had been a Facebook in 1988? As I write, I imagine my mother, my sister and me, sitting in our den, cuddled on the sofa, laptop opened in front of us, reading all the wonderful things people would have posted on my father's wall. "Roger, I think of you all the time, remember when..." The warmth that would have comforted us, the love that would have come beaming in via our computer would have helped us.

Not too long ago, I made a new friend on Facebook. She was a beautiful, blonde-haired ray of light. I never met her, but every post, every picture, every saying, every supportive comment, left me with a smile. I loved her energy and sweetness. When she was diagnosed with cancer, she was quiet about it. As things took a turn for the worse, she messaged a small group of Facebook friends. She chose to include me in this group and I felt honored. She asked that we pray for her. She shared a bit about her progress and we offered support, encouragement, prayer, and perhaps most important of all, hope. One day, her wall became quiet. Soon her husband posted on her behalf, letting us all know that she passed on peacefully and how grateful she had been for our support.

I never actually spoke to her, yet I still feel the loss of her light on our planet. Often, I find myself picturing her hugging her dog.

Occasionally I'll visit her page. I'll read the posts. Sometimes someone will drop by, leave flowers, or a heart, on her page.

It may not have been one of the initial intentions for the founders, yet Facebook offers those who grieve a virtual gravesite. We can come by and leave flowers, post a poem or a prayer and scroll down our own personal memory lane. Our loved ones become immortal and live on -- not only in our hearts, but in the hearts of friends who never knew them.

For more by Carolyn Ziel, click here.

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