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The State | COLUMN ONE

Grief, comfort go online

The MySpace.com pages of people who have died often live on, serving as a focus for friends who write to the departed and console one another.

January 24, 2007|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

RIANNA Woolsey, a 16-year-old cheerleader, last logged onto MySpace.com on Dec. 6, 2005. She died the next day when her car smashed into a tree near her home in southern Orange County.

Her online profile is a snapshot of a young life cut short -- her smiling face greets visitors as the singer Imogen Heap's "Hide and Seek" plays in the background. There is a photo of her boyfriend, she calls James Frey's "A Million Little Pieces" the "best book ever written," and the Trabuco Canyon resident wrote that she planned to have children "someday."

The one part of her page that has changed since her death is the section where MySpace denizens post comments. Since the accident more than a year ago, friends have written nearly 700 messages to the Tesoro High School junior.

\o7i dont understand, i dont like it, i am completely and utterly selfish. i want you here, i want to laugh with you and see your shining face, i want to dance with you, i want to carpool with you, i want to talk about boys with you, .. i want to hug you. but i cant. cause for an entire year youve been happy and healthy and dancinng up in Heaven, and theres nothing i can do down here.

MySpace.com was created in 2004 as an online community to meet friends or lovers, network, post pictures, listen to music and keep diaries, known as blogs. But it has also become a place for a generation to chronicle its grief -- a high-tech extension of visiting graves, writing letters to the departed and journaling about sorrow. Woolsey's MySpace page is one of countless that have turned into virtual memorials.

Dead users' profiles largely feature teens and people in their 20s, who are most likely to use MySpace. Some killed themselves or accidentally overdosed on drugs. A few had heart defects that had gone undetected. Others were slain, some soldiers were killed in Iraq, and a young man was gunned down in a drive-by shooting in Watts. Many died in car accidents.

Family and friends use other sites on the Internet to remember the dead in many ways, such as creating formal legacy pages memorializing their lives, or setting up guest books for people to log condolences and memories.

BUT the grieving on MySpace is unplanned -- the dead person's page is a frozen moment, showing when they last logged on, their favorite books and movies, whether they were in a relationship, and photos of their best friends. After their death, their friends post messages to the departed that are akin to text messages between high school pals, stream-of-consciousness blurbs filled with slang, misspellings and abbreviations. The messages are sorrowful and sweet, angry and funny, routine and heartbreaking. They include reminiscences, pleas to watch over them, and updates on events the dead friend has missed.

This weekend was homecoming, and it was so weird to not have you there. I remember last year when you wore your cute polka-dot dress, and looked so pretty.

Linda Goldman, a certified grief therapist, said that writing on a dead friend's MySpace page is similar to visiting the cemetery, writing them a letter or praying to them. All are attempts to maintain a relationship with someone who has died.

"It's a diary to their friend that died," said Goldman, author of "Life and Loss: A Guide to Help Grieving Children." "One common aspect of grief is [survivors] want to have an ongoing interpersonal relationship with the person who died. There's a strong need to keep communicating."

Goldman said MySpace was a valuable outlet for the dizzying emotions of teenagers, who may be dealing with the death of a friend for the first time. Seeing others communicating with the departed shows them they are not alone in their grief, even months after the death. Additionally, knowing they can click on the profile months or years from now allows them to keep a connection to their friend as memories fade, she said.

i feel like it has been forever and i am starting to forget the little things like the way you laughed and the crayon smell of your car even tho mine has the same smell i just miss you so much riri. life moves so fast and i feel like i never just have the time to stop and think about you and about life. life is so hectic right now and i find myself thinking and missing you most at night esp. cuz this is when i would normally call you up and we would swap stories from the night.

Nealani Lopez, a 17-year-old Temecula resident who had known Rianna Woolsley since seventh grade, said the site helped her maintain a link with her friend.

"I'll never forget about her, but sometimes I start to forget what she looks like, so I just go on her page to look at her," she said. "Even though I pray, it's kind of weird talking to a friend I've known forever [who is] in heaven. I can't really explain it, I just like to talk to her on MySpace. It feels like she's still here."

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