“This suggests that the connective recovery we observed wasn’t caused by technology, but may have been aided by it,” Burke, a data scientist at Facebook, told me in an email. “Sometimes close friends of a person who dies don't know each other well, so this study suggests that Facebook helps them to connect with each other and perhaps see their mutual friend through another person’s eyes, and find other people to grieve and recover with.”
Strangely, the amount of interactions added to the network, on average, was equal to the amount of interactions lost when the person died. Almost like the network of the deceased person was healing, compensating for the hole left by their loss, flesh knitting together over a wound.
“We wouldn’t think that the interactions were replacing the person who died,” clarifies Hobbs, who did this research at the University of California, San Diego, and who is now a postdoc at Northeastern University. Rather, new connections are being forged that help fill the need for the social support that is lost when a friend dies.
There’s some variation here—the youngest group, ages 18 to 25, saw the biggest sustained increases in interaction, perhaps because the social networks of young people are always rapidly changing, Hobbs suggests. Networks of older people changed less dramatically, but still enough to compensate for the loss.
Cause of death seemed to play a role as well. The effect was greater when the person died of an unintentional injury—maybe because that kind of death is so unexpected. The effect was dampened when the person committed suicide. While a suicide is also a jarring death, it may be that the stigma surrounding it kept people from connecting publicly in the same way.
The patterns also looked a little different when the deceased person’s close friends were interacting with each other, and when close friends were interacting with acquaintances. The drop off after the initial spike was steeper with acquaintances, and more gradual when both parties were close to the deceased person.
“[They’re] settling into a new structure and that probably takes some time,” Hobbs says. “I think that’s what’s going on here, they're figuring out their new roles in each others’ lives.”
Overall, though, the researchers found that the social networks rebounded notably quickly after a loss. “Recovery dynamics here… were similar to patterns seen in resilient psychological responses to grief and trauma,” they write. In the psychological literature, “resilience” refers to people’s ability to remain stable and functioning, even after experiencing the death of a loved one or another traumatic event. “That’s not to say they are thrilled, or have no lingering sadness,” George Bonanno told me in an email. Bonanno is a professor of clinical psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University, who pioneered this idea of resilience. “However, they can still move forward and function fully in their lives.”