The death of a friend or loved one brings people together in unexpected ways. But how long do those bonds last? A new study of thousands of friend networks on Facebook finds that even 2 years after someone dies, that person’s friends and acquaintances remain in tighter contact with each other than before. A greater understanding of how social networks recover after trauma could lend insight into how to strengthen them when they don’t.
Until now, there had been no large-scale studies of how friend groups respond to death, either online or offline. One could imagine at least two outcomes: Death strengthens social networks—or causes them to slowly disintegrate. After all, once everyone has said “I’m sorry for your loss,” what do members of a suddenly centerless social circle have left in common?
To gather large amounts of data, the researchers turned to Facebook. They collected anonymized statistics on 15,129 friend networks that had lost someone and a comparison group of 30,258 networks that hadn’t. To measure interaction, the scientists counted comments, posts, and photo tags. For each of the deceased, they looked at that person’s “close friends”—people they’d interacted with at least once during a 6-month window—and tallied how much those friends interacted with various types of other people. This included close friends of the deceased, less close “acquaintances” (friends whom the deceased had not communicated with in that 6-month window), and “strangers” whom the deceased had no connection to on the site.
In the month immediately after the death, close friends of the deceased interacted with each other about 30% more than usual, and with acquaintances of the deceased about 15% more than usual. (Contact with strangers to the deceased didn’t change.) Friend-friend communication died down over the next year, and friend-acquaintance communication died down over a few months. But even 2 years later, in both cases interactions per month were still about 3% higher than in the comparison networks, the authors report today in Nature Human Behavior.
“What is surprising is that it lasts so long,” says William Hobbs, a social scientist at Northeastern University in Boston, who conducted the work at the University of California, San Diego, in collaboration with Moira Burke, a data scientist at Facebook.
Not all deaths were the same. Postdeath interactions were more frequent after cancer and unintentional injuries than after other causes, and less frequent after stigmatized causes, such as suicide, sexually transmitted diseases, and liver disease, which can be caused by alcohol abuse. (There weren’t enough data to know whether interaction after stigmatized deaths was higher or lower than if there’d been no death.)
Of course friends could no longer communicate with the person they’d lost, but even factoring in those lost interactions, interaction in the overall friend group did not fall below where it was before the death. And among people aged 20 to 24, it remained higher.
“I find it to be a really fascinating methodology,” says Robert Neimeyer, a clinical psychologist at the University of Memphis in Tennessee who studies loss. “I appreciate its creativity and the recognition that we increasingly conduct relationships in this highly mediated way.”
The methodology comes with compromises, though. For example, the researchers didn’t analyze what the people in the study wrote to each other. “Communication is happening,” Neimeyer says, “but is it supportive communication?” Some of it might include expressions of anger or helplessness, or attempts to keep the writer's own memories of the deceased alive. Robert Bond, a political scientist at The Ohio State University in Columbus who studies social networks, says looking at content “could add a tremendous amount of nuance.” In addition, he notes that the sample consists of Facebook users in California, who may not represent other types of people.
The study brings due attention to the collective nature of mourning, Neimeyer says. Research on grief tends to focus on the individual or on a few close relationships. “However, it’s important to recognize that we naturally grieve in broader social contexts, drawing on the rituals of our places and times and faith traditions and secular beliefs,” he says. Understanding those collective behaviors could help us shape them to further increase human resilience. For instance, this study shows that young people are more fluid in forming new bonds. Older people and mourners of a stigmatized death might need more encouragement to reach out.
Hobbs says he would also like to better understand how online behavior relates to offline behavior. He suspects that in this study, Facebook support reflected offline support, though in some cases it may have increased it or, alternatively, replaced it.
Neimeyer offers some advice about that: “Take it offline.” Be present, and assist with practical chores. “This has been demonstrated empirically to be really helpful to people,” he says, “and it requires more than posting a supportive note on Facebook.”