It’s hard dealing with the loss of a friend. And it’s not easy to find the right words to say to a person who is grieving. The bereaved struggle with overwhelming emotions, from depression to anger, guilt, and even profound sadness. Inevitably, the grieving process takes time. And everyone has different ways of coping.
Northeastern University’s William R. Hobbs, an expert in Computational Social Science, research focuses on people’s social interactions and behaviour after the loss of a close friend or relative. Hobbs wanted to know if social networks responded similarly after the death of a close mutual friend. He collaborated with Facebook data scientists to find that close friends of the deceased immediately increased their interactions with one another by 30 percent, peaking in volume. The interactions faded a bit in the following months and ultimately stabilised at the same volume of interaction as before the death, even two years after the loss.
“Most people don’t have very many friends, so when we lose one, that leaves a hole in our networks as well as in our lives,” says Hobbs. Using sophisticated data counters and computer analysis, the researchers compared monthly interactions—wall posts, comments, and photo tags—of approximately 15,000 Facebook networks that had experienced the death of a friend. The researchers found that networks comprising young adults, ages 18 to 24, showed the strongest recovery. They were not only more likely to recover than others, but their interaction levels also stayed elevated—higher than before the loss.
“We didn’t study the subjective experience of loss, or how people feel,” cautions Hobbs. “We looked at recovery only in terms of connectivity. We also can’t say for certain whether the results translate into closer friendships offline.” This insight into how social networks adapt to significant losses could lead to new ways to help people with the grieving process, ensuring that their networks are able to recover rather than collapse during these difficult times. “There are so few studies on the effect of the death of a friend on a network. This is a big step forward,” Hobbs says.