- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 21, 2001

Within minutes of NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt's fatal crash, racing fans were posting their messages of sympathy on the Web.
"Dale, you might be gone, but in our hearts and in our deepest souls, you'll never be forgotten," Brian Ptashinski wrote from Nanticoke, Pa., in a message posted at www.daleearnhardt.net.
"Earnhardt's career has, in some inexplicable way, touched my life. His attitude has shaped my own," William Jones wrote from Manitou, Ky., on another message board. "He will be remembered with a smile and a tear."
A racing enthusiast from Denver said, "My thoughts and prayers go out to the Earnhardt family, team and friends."
Since Sunday, NASCAR message boards have been inundated with words in memory of a fallen racing hero. On Monday, America Online posted an offer on its home page for readers to design their own commemorative Earnhardt sites.
Thus, instead of flowers, phone calls, letters or donations, the Internet has become the accepted forum for public grieving. Sympathy boards for Earnhardt join many other sites mourning the famous and not-so-famous.
"People are doing more things on the Internet, so they are grieving there as well," says Cendra Lynn, a clinical grief psychologist, death educator and traumatologist based in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Mr. Ptashinski, 36, says it was comforting to read the messages of fellow Earnhardt devotees, then share his own thoughts.
"Whatever was inside me at the time just spoke, and I wrote what I felt," he says. "To me, [Earnhardt] is NASCAR."
Since last month's plane crash that killed two members and six staff of the Oklahoma State University basketball team, the university's sympathy board linked from their sports page has received 5,000 messages.
Kyle Knock, a tight end for the Iowa State football team, posted his message of sympathy for OSU, a fellow Big 12 school.
"We may be enemies on the field or court, but when something like this happens, it brings us all together," he wrote.
People are still leaving condolences on a message board at the University of Arkansas in memory of John Locke, the English teacher who was shot to death in August. Likewise, after the 1999 Texas A&M; bonfire tragedy, more than 3,500 people left their thoughts on a page dedicated to the deceased students.
People's tendency to feel loss, even though they haven't met the deceased, is part of human nature, says James Pennebaker, who studies Internet self-disclosure and wrote "Opening Up: The Healing Process of Expressing Emotions."
"When there's some disaster, even if you don't know the person, you have some sense of grief, but there's nobody for you to talk to about it," he says. "You'd like to express your condolences."
Mr. Knock left a message on the OSU site to let those who felt immediate loss know that he cares.
"I did it to comfort their families and their university," he says. "I've had people in my family die, and when you receive letters from other people showing their support, it helps."
"Because college students are dispersed geographically, the Internet provides a forum," says Griffin Davis, vice president of marketing for collegeclub.com, a Web site that put up message boards for college students to leave their thoughts on the OSU and Arkansas tragedies.
The people who posted messages on the OSU message boards come from a variety of backgrounds, including parents of students at OSU, OSU alumni, Oklahoma residents, former Oklahoma residents and staff from other university athletic programs.
When Gianni Versace, Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy Jr. met untimely deaths, a plethora of mourners posted their thoughts and established virtual memorials.
At www.john-f-kennedy-jr.com, a tribute to the celebrity features pictures and words from those who feel his loss. People were still posting messages of condolence to his family at the one-year anniversary of his death.
"If there's somebody that you've been following your whole life, there's a sense of loss," Mr. Pennebaker says. "Is it healthy to express that grief? Yes. We know that it has positive effects."
Web-based memorials are also erected in honor of those famous only to family and friends.
When Brian Kornegay, a California firefighter, lost his daughter Heather to a severe asthma attack in 1999, he created a Web site in her memory with pictures and a letter to her.
After the Columbine killings, he decided to expand his site to memorialize others who have met tragic deaths, creating links to 12 memorials from his home page. Most memorials feature a picture of the deceased and the circumstances surrounding his or her death, along with a message board where people can leave messages to help their grieving. The site (www.virtual-condolences.com) has recent listings in honor of Dale Earnhardt and of the nine persons who died after a U.S. submarine sank a Japanese training boat on Feb. 9.
Mr. Kornegay says leaving messages on a sympathy board is like leaving flowers. He says he has received thousands of e-mails from people who have been helped by his Web site in their time of grief.
"It lets them know that they are not dealing with this alone," he says. "I think we're all in this together, and it allows for other people to share their grief."
At www.virtualmemorials.com, people can post more elaborate memorials of their deceased loved ones.
A site dedicated to Nathan Delaplane, a 19-year-old from an Atlanta suburb who committed suicide, is a typical on-line memorial. It has a picture gallery of him, words from his family, excerpts from his writing and a message board.
"I've learned more about life in reading some of Nathan's deepest feelings, thoughts and experiences," wrote Kimberly Brandenburg from Delaware on the board at Mr. Delaplane's memorial. "I just want to thank him."
His memorial, established by his father, has received more than 1,000 hits.
Www.InMemoriamOnline.com charges a fee for people to post obituaries or remembrance pages. Fees start at $50 and go up to $150, depending on how long the bereaved want to keep the page available.
These memorials are constructive because they let people maintain a connection with the loved one they've lost, says George Bonnano, assistant professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University, who studies bereavement.
"It's a way of honoring the person and letting them live on," he says. "I think it's a really good thing."
Elsewhere on the Web, those who have lost family or friends can find support at www.groww.com and at www.death-dying.com, where there are chat rooms and message boards. Likewise, www.griefnet.org, founded and run by Mrs. Lynn, offers an annotated bibliography of over 5,000 mourning resources, on-line memorials, e-mail support groups and chat rooms for mourners.
"We try and succeed at creating safe havens," she says, "where people can come and be in anguish with people who are going through the same thing they have."

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