The social network can provide an ongoing sense of connection with a deceased loved one.

By Tom Jacobs

(Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

For better or worse, Facebook has fundamentally altered the way we communicate. Everything from casual hellos to heartfelt entreaties are now expressed online, as we maintain and solidify emotional ties with our friends and loved ones.

Including the ones who have passed away.

New research finds the reach of the World Wide Web extends to the next world, at least in the minds and hearts of many users. It describes how people use the still-active Facebook pages of their late friends to hold onto an emotional connection that survived the person's death.

"Maintaining connections with a departed loved one in the virtual world has the potential to provide comfort, and be a powerful coping mechanism for many," writes a Kansas State University research team led by Amanda Bouc. Their study is published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

In 2009, Facebook adopted a policy allowing the profile pages of deceased users to stay online rather than be deleted. This let people continue interacting with their late friends' profiles. (The company updated this policy in 2015, allowing users to select a friend or family member to manage their page following their death — or, if they wish, have their account deleted.)

The researchers closely examined 10 such pages, which featured 2,533 messages contributed by more than 750 people. All of the users died between 2009 and 2011, and were between the ages of 17 and 22 at the time of their death.

Facebook pages can provide solace — and a continuing sense of emotional connection — long after the memorial services are over.

In 20 percent of the posts, people "wrote to the deceased that they were purposefully working to maintain the relationship" — statements such as "stopping by to say hi" or "sorry it took me so long to talk to you." Twenty percent included requests of the dead ("Please help me through this rough patch"), while 14 percent "were written to keep the deceased person 'in the loop' with important news," such as "I got married," and "Bro, your Packers won the Super Bowl!"

Not surprisingly, the frequency of posts declined over time, from an average of 150 per month during the first year after death to 61 per month the following year. Their content shifted as well, with messages indicating the writer was emotionally processing the tragedy peaking shortly after the person's death.

These posts featured "explicit emotional expressions," such as pain or despair; spiritual or religious concepts, such as assertions that the person is now in Heaven; and/or creative expressions, such as original poetry.

In perhaps their most interesting finding, Bouc and her colleagues report such messages—which were found in just under one-third of posts overall — "remained fairly consistent" over the next two years, following the initial drop-off.

"Grievance literature suggests that there is a socially constructed one-year time frame for mourning loss in public settings, particularly in Western cultures," they note. But on these Facebook pages, language indicating continued mourning "persisted after this one-year mark, occurring in more than a quarter of all messages throughout the second year of loss."

"The Facebook profile page may provide a comfortable space for managing loss beyond a set amount of time," Bouc and her team concludes, "since it can serve as a bridge between public and private mourning."

In other words, Facebook is a place where you can safely express your continued sadness, even when those around you are telling you it's time to move on.

So while those who lost loved ones in the Orlando nightclub tragedy will have many opportunities to mourn publicly in the coming days, the victims' memorialized Facebook pages can provide solace — and a continuing sense of emotional connection — long after the memorial services are over.