Mourning from a distance

Peers and family members gravitated to a familiar site to grieve the deaths of two GW students this summer. Used as a way to spread the news, and then to share memories of the deceased. Facebook became a way to memorialize Phill Grosser, 22, and Anna Orthwein, 19.

Grosser was killed in a motorcycle accident in May, when he was in Colorado training to work with Engineering Ministries International. Orthwein died in June of a ruptured brain aneurysm. She was living at home in Maryland at the time.

This summer, Facebook replaced the traditional role of phone calls and mailed or e-mailed notes. Rather than opting for more conventional methods of communication, friends spread the news of the students’ deaths through what they deemed the simplest method.

“People don’t call everyone anymore, but now they find out (news) faster than they did before,” said GW alumnus Gordon Daniels, a friend of Grosser. “This is definitely a new medium. We didn’t have this a couple years ago, and since (Grossser’s death) happened during the summer when people are scattered everywhere, this was a way to be together.”

The open Facebook group, “In Memory of Phill Grosser,” became an ever-changing memorial for the well-known student. As of Tuesday, 465 users had joined the group.

Over the summer, people posted more than 100 photographs of Grosser on the page. Several poems, including one written by Grosser’s father, were also posted as messages. Some students wrote comments addressed directly to Grosser, and others posted memories or prayers.

The Facebook group announced the date of the memorial service and that donations should be made in honor of Grosser’s death.

Friends said the distance that the Internet creates allowed mourners to more freely communicate how they felt.

“Since it’s on the Internet, people who might be less comfortable being themselves directly in front of other people are probably able to express themselves through (Facebook),” said junior Jennifer Leftwich, who left a message to Grosser on the group’s wall.

Others left messages on Facebook because they knew doing so would garner a wide audience. Student Association President Nicole Capp left a post on the site of Grosser’s group describing the availability and contact information for the University Counseling Center.

In an e-mail, Capp, a junior, explained why she left the post.

“I’m not a mental health professional and not everyone knows that UCC is an option for students,” Capp wrote. “I didn’t post that information as a representative of the UCC or of the SA, but as a student who lost someone they knew, just like everyone else. In times like these, it’s important for students to know that it’s OK to speak with a mental health professional.”

After hearing the news that his friend Anna Orthwein had died, recent GW graduate Elias Barghash created a Facebook announcement that popped up on the screens of all members of the GW network when they logged into the social network.

“I wrote a little blurb honoring her memory and kept it up for a few days,” Barghash said. “I got a lot of responses from people I know and people I didn’t know. I wanted to raise awareness since a lot of people hadn’t heard. Facebook is a well connected tool, and everyone I know uses it. It seemed like a logical way to tell everyone.”

Another friend of Orthwein, senior Molly Moss, said posting the Facebook announcement was a convenient way to spread difficult news.

“People let their close friends know when things like this happen, but when they are that upset they will not think to call every person who should know,” Moss said. “Facebook lets everyone know easily.”

“Facebook is so popular, constant, fast, and widespread. (The announcement) worked well. It’s also good to have her wall available to write feelings and say things to her,” senior Claire Twomey said.

Orthwein’s friends keep in touch with her parents by posting on her Facebook wall.

Twomey said, “Anna’s mom mentioned Facebook at the funeral. She said she got to see her daughter’s life without parental interference and wanted to keep it going so people can keep writing . It’s a good memory for her.”

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