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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Last respects, 2.0

No protocol yet for digital-age condolences

Catherine Johnston And Rebecca Nappi, The Spokesman-Review The Spokesman-Review

Q. Are condolences on Facebook, or sent by text and email, OK in this digital age?

A. Maybe. It depends on the expectations of the person who experienced the loss.

Pamela Gabbay, program director for the Mourning Star Center in Palm Desert, Calif., works with children and teens in grief.

“Facebook for teens is an everyday part of their lives,” Gabbay said in a recent phone interview with EndNotes. “When a teen has had someone die and other friends reach out on Facebook, they don’t feel so alone. I consider it similar to a warm, fuzzy blanket wrapped around the griever.”

Gabbay says teens learn from reading Facebook condolence posts how to respond to others in grief. People of all ages sometimes fail to acknowledge another’s loss because they don’t know what to say.

On Facebook, teens see others write words of comfort. They can copy the words or say something unique. Either way they will be “a lot less intimidated when typing on the computer screen,” Gabbay said.

In the days before email, social media, texting and online memorial pages, condolence protocol was simple: Someone experiences a loss, you write a card.

But now?

“I don’t know that there is an actual protocol. It changes yearly at this point,” Gabbay said.

This means extra work for people in “transition generations” who use social media, email and text, but who were also taught to express condolences with a handwritten card.

For people who never use digital communication, a handwritten note is still the norm, of course.

“My belief is we meet grieving people where they are,” Gabbay said. “The best place to help a grieving person is by entering their world.”

Q. An atheist friend has been in and out of the hospital for a year due to cancer treatment complications. When people tell him they are praying for him, he explains – nicely – why this isn’t helpful. I am a Christian, but am I wrong to secretly pray for him, as I have been?

A. No, you are not wrong to pray for your friend privately. Just as your friend wants his spiritual perspective honored, your spiritual practice should not be thwarted by anyone.

But if you arrive on his doorstep with holy water and a prayer shawl, your friend may not welcome you inside. And with good reason.

Challenging questions arise here. What, exactly, is your prayer? Are you petitioning God to cure your friend? But what if your friend dies? Does that outcome suggest God shows favoritism, healing some people and not others?

Prayer inherently has a mystical component so to explain the mechanics of prayer – I pray for this favor and receive it, or not – diminishes its mystical nature.

JoAnn Smith, an Olympia chaplain says, “Prayer is simply the sense of hope in the midst of the unknown. Prayer could be holding someone. Our world is relational and prayer is connecting with the source of life – and that may or may not be God for others.”

So keep praying – without reporting to your friend – and listen to the spirit within you. Offer compassionate gestures such as visiting him during his hospital stays, sharing a meal or cleaning up his yard.

Your kindness will transcend theological differences and your friend will appreciate your companionship on his difficult journey. If you understand God as the source of love – instead of a medical magician – you will find meaningful paths that add to that love for your sick friend, a love understood by believers and atheists alike.

Catherine Johnston, a health care professional from Olympia, and Rebecca Nappi, Spokesman-Review features writer, welcome your questions about what to do in times of illness, dying, death and grief. Contact them through their blog at blogs/endnotes.