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A Click Away: Online networking sites are proving to be gathering places for grievers

Kyle Sonnen and girlfriend Laura Deatherage before he was killed in a car crash last month.Just before 8:30 p.m. on Feb. 13 Laura Deatherage logged


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Kyle Sonnen and girlfriend Laura Deatherage before he was killed in a car crash last month.Just before 8:30 p.m. on Feb. 13 Laura Deatherage logged on to Facebook and posted a short message on the wall of her boyfriend, Kyle Sonnen.

"i love you more than the world and wish i was in your arms up in heaven, i can't live without you."

Laura said she can't help but believe Kyle heard her message.

"It was just kind of a way to talk to him - that there's this chance that he sees it," she said quietly, maybe still not sure herself what prompted her to leave him a message on the Internet.

At the very least, it was her way to say another goodbye.

Sonnen, 20, and Deatherage, 18, were traveling on the Mt. Baker Highway outside Bellingham, WA., on Feb. 7 when Sonnen attempted to pass another vehicle in a no-passing zone, according to police. Sonnen's 2000 Subaru hatchback slid off the road and hit a tree, killing him almost immediately. Laura suffered several injuries including a broken femur, a broken wrist and a gash on her head that required 22 staples.

A handsome young man with a tousled head of blond hair, Sonnen had an infectious smile and taste for adventure. Rather than stick in the Midwest for college, he lit out for the West Coast and landed in Bend, where he attended community college with dreams of being a pilot and quickly surrounded himself with a large circle of friends and acquaintances. He stayed in touch with friends near and far using one of the most popular networking sites, Facebook, where he "poked" people, challenging friends to movie trivia and rekindling relationships with old acquaintances from across the country. Sonnen and Deatherage used the site to post pictures of each other and share photos from their numerous adventures. They used it to make plans with friends to ski and party.

Sonnen, who worked for me at Widgi Creek Golf Club, was the last person to leave a message on my own Facebook wall.

"hey, let's go skiing," he wrote. "im going every day this week."

Now, Deatherage and hundreds of people who knew her boyfriend, including me, are using the online social networking site to remember him - creating something of an ongoing virtual wake that's allowing everyone he's touched from coast to coast to mourn his loss together.

The website is helping those who loved Sonnen to cope with his sudden death by feeling like they can still talk to him, make plans with him, and look at his smiling face.

It's an increasing youthful phenomenon and growing method of grieving for an online society, experts say. It gives people a somewhat detached environment to express their true feelings about someone.

"I think that in our society, we've become different in how we express ourselves about everything," said Dr. Diane Ervin, a licensed clinical social worker with St. Charles Outpatient Behavioral Health Services in Bend.

"Mourning on Facebook or Myspace is a natural outlet for expression of loss or grief today. I think that when we're face to face with others we often don't feel as comfortable expressing ourselves," she said. "Any way they can express feelings of loss is helpful or beneficial. Any time we have strong feelings about anything, it's always good to find a way to express them instead of holding them inside. It's a process of healing."

The messages posted on Kyle's wall are the unfiltered eulogies that many of his friends likely couldn't muster the courage to give in front of a large crowd at Kyle's memorial service in his home state of Minnesota - a memorial service, his father Mark Sonnen said, that more than 400 people attended.

The messages are short and sweet and heartfelt. They talk about all his passions - hockey, snowboarding, hanging out with friends. They're filled with inside jokes, "remember whens" and obscure, but poignant, memories and promises that they'll see each other once again. Every one of Sonnen's friends has a different memory etched in his or her mind.

"...my mom says hello and sends you a hug in return for the one you gave her," one friend says. "I love you and you're missed terribly."


"Skiing today...man it was tough," another friend wrote. "I'm never going to forget your smile dude. If there is anyone I can honestly say I admire, that'd be you. Never have I met someone with such a beautiful attitude towards life. You're one of a kind man, you'll leave behind a memory that I'll cherish forever."


"we just hung out for my birthday last weekend.

drinking pbr

the card you made me last year is still on my wall, hahahah.

that was the best present.

you'll always mean the world to me."

Even more messages have been left by some of the 430-some members of the "RIP Kyle Sonnen, Stay Strong Laura D" memorial group started by his friends on Facebook both to remember him and to help Deatherage get through losing the person who she calls the "love of her life."

Still more messages have been left on an online guest book attached to Sonnen's official obituary printed in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Many are addressed to Sonnen and to Deatherage, but many friends of the couple's parents have also used the online avenue to pass along their sympathies.

Laura's parents, Tom and Susan Deatherage, are among those who have left their thoughts online.

"Mark & Ellen, As you are aware, we are sorry for your loss of Kyle. I can't imagine how difficult this is for your family. It is difficult for us just being a family away from home for Kyle, Matthew, Laura, Lucas and ourselves were just getting used to having Kyle around at family functions. We all enjoyed his positive attitude at Thanksgiving & Christmas. He always made us all smile and encouraged Laura endlessly. Thanks for sharing him with us."


And another friend from North Dakota wrote:

"Kyle, we haven't talked in a while...probably since before graduation. But I still remember running around Eisenhower and the old neighborhood together. I remember in 4th grade when I met you. You were my first crush. Life was so simple back then.

You were a great person then and a great person now. I'm truly sorry I wasn't able to make it to your funeral Kyle. But I know you know that my thoughts were with you and your family. You were a huge part of my childhood Kyle. I won't ever forget that."


Mark Sonnen said through tears that it's been comforting to read the things that people have to say about his son online and that he had heard about Kyle's Facebook page.

"We've heard how wonderful the things people were saying were," he said. "His friends have told us that it was a place they could go and remember Kyle and grieve a little bit. They've told me that because they're stuck out there in Bend and we're here in Minnesota that they couldn't come here for the funeral and express their loss.

"I think it's a great way for the kids to write about skateboarding and snowboarding and golf and everything he was involved in. For kids to be able to talk about that in their own language, Facebook is really quite the opportunity."

Those who study how we use the Internet today say such a method of grieving is exactly what young people need. They don't know any other way.

"I don't think it's surprising at all. The Internet is increasingly where our friends are, so that's where we turn to meet with our friends and to talk with them and to grieve," said David Weinberger, a fellow at the Berkman Center for the Internet & Society at Harvard Law School.

"It doesn't replace sitting with our grieving family and friends. It's a social space so we do our social things there. On one hand, there are things that are easier to say with distance and some feelings that are easier to express with distance," he said. "And the Internet allows people who have never met to feel connected."

At 9:36 on Feb. 9, one of Sonnen's friends, Kyle Curry logged onto his Facebook page and left this short message:

"RIP buddy, I'm sorry we never got to go fly together it would have been a blast. I'll never forget you!"

Later, he said even he wasn't sure why he left the note.

"I wasn't sure what brought me to view Kyle's page that day," he wrote in an e-mail. "I think it was just to see his face again and to really soak in what had happened. I wanted to say my respects and what better way then to leave them on his wall for others to see and bring inspiration to everyone that reads it.

"The comfort I feel from reading what others are saying about him is just knowing how many people Kyle has influenced through his life and to know just how many people care for him still."

Mark Sonnen sort of chuckled and said "No" when asked if he had a Facebook page so that he could see all the things others were saying about his son.

I gave him my login and password so that he could read some of the comments posted about Kyle and to witness the support offered to Deatherage through Facebook.

"Ellen and I were very touched by all the wonderful messages," he wrote to me in an e-mail after visiting the site. "It makes me proud as a dad to know he was well liked and he had his priorities straight and yet was able to have loads of fun."

Sure, maybe there was a picture or two that Kyle didn't want mom and dad seeing. Maybe there was a message on his page that referenced him perhaps having a beer or two before his 21st birthday.

Still, a social networking site most people use just to be goofy provided the slightest bit of comfort for grieving parents. And I don't think Kyle would have minded his parents looking at his page.

Weinberger acknowledged the idea that something like Facebook offers an "eternal flame" of sorts for those who have passed away.

"One of the differences between real world conversations and web conversations is that web conversations are public and have some persistence - and that can be comforting," he said. "Real conversations go away as soon as you stop talking."

And the best part about Kyle's Facebook page, Deatherage said, is that it likely will never stop talking to her.

"It's been nice to see that there are other people out there that I didn't know yet who are thinking about him," Deatherage said. "It's nice to see them sharing the stories that will stay with them forever. It's nice for everyone to share a piece of him.

"I look at it from time to time," she said. "Mainly I go on it and see his pictures and stuff. Maybe 20 years from now, if Facebook is still going, I can go on there and look at it and it will take me back to this time."

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