Crash of Flight 5191

Going online to express grief

Erik Heyer began his blog Sunday this way.

“My younger brother, Kelly James Heyer, died this morning on Delta Flight 5191 as it was taking off from Lexington, Ky. Kelly was 27.”

In part, he was writing to let people know his wife, who shared Kelly’s name, didn’t die on the plane.

In part, he typed those words because, amid the shock and chaos of his little brother’s passing and at a time when the rest of his life seemed completely out of control, he could at least determine how others learned of Kelly’s death.

“I don’t know why I’m writing this blog,” wrote Erik Heyer, a North Dakota radio personality who regularly blogs to listeners about his everyday life under the on-air identity of Hoppy Gilmore at his station’s Web site.

“Maybe subconsciously I think it will be therapeutic. But since I consider you my family I thought I should tell you.”

Like many of those touched by the tragedy of Comair Flight 5191, Heyer is grieving in a way that wasn’t conceivable to many in 2001, when the last significant air crash in the U.S. occurred. More than 200 were aboard the plane that fell in Far Rockaway, N.Y. Blogs were in their infancy. Legacy.com, which now posts 1 million obituaries and also provides online guest books, was just beginning.

But now millions like Erik Heyer routinely use the World Wide Web as a sort of online diary. The guest book created for victims of Flight 5191 had nearly 1,200 messages posted in the four days following the crash. And each of those days, Legacy.com has processed some 15,000 to 20,000 condolence messages, as it does every day, said Hayes Ferguson, chief operating officer.

And each of those message is in some measure a reflection prompted by loss.

For Heyer, in his first posting he went on to write about his little brother, how they’d play the trumpet together at church on Christmas and Easter and how Kelly, always the life of the party, was the better musician.

“What I’m saying isn’t meant to entertain you,” he wrote at the end of that first entry, “and I’m not asking for your sympathy. I just want you to know what’s happening in my life. I’ve shared my wedding with you. You’ve been there at the births of my three kids. It just feels right that I share this with you now.”

The posting prior to his brother’s death had been about attending a family reunion.

Once it would have taken Erik Heyer and his family months to inform far-flung friends about his brother’s death. Last Sunday, the word was spread roughly five hours after the crash. His first posting was at 11:31 a.m.

“The community all of a sudden has become the entire world, where as once upon a time there would have people in their small town who would have sent a letter,” said Ferguson.

Now, postings for Comair Flight 5191 are coming in from places as far away as Kuala Lumpur.

“Clearly, any time something important happens to people, these days, they do turn to the Internet,” said John Horrigan, associate director for the Pew Internet & American Life Project., which studies the impact of the Web in everyday life.

Some 60 million Americans, fully 45 percent of internet users, said they have used the Internet to help them make big decisions or to negotiate their way through major life events in the last two years.

“It’s a pervasive part of how people cope with things that are important to them,” he said.

And, in the case of grief, technology also changes the depth of the experience.

Having pictures and sound and sometimes even video of the person who died always available, “engages you in a whole different way,” said Barbara Bouton, director of professional development with the National Hospice and Palliative care Foundation.

“It compounds the tragedy and you can see into their world,” she said.

What motivates people to reach out to people they’ve never met via the internet is unclear, said Horrigan. It could be that doesn’t take a great deal of effort. It’s also anonymous, so people don’t feel vulnerable in expressing their feelings, or awkward if they don’t know what to say.

More than one Legacy.com post about Flight 5191 said simply, “God Bless.”

For Erik Heyer, the Internet response in postings provides a comforting sense of how sorely Kelly Heyer will be missed.

“I’m learning just how many people Kelly touched in his life,” he said, adding it has also been comforting to his parents, Dave and Barb.

“It’s given me something to direct my grief toward,” he said.

His blog address is: blogfromthepond.blogspot.com/

Even in grief not everyone knows how to behave with sensitivity, Ferguson said. Legacy.com has learned by trial and error some of the pitfalls of online grieving, she added.

The company, which puts obituaries and guest books online for 300 newspapers across the country including the Herald-Leader, reviews all posts before they are put online and is careful to cull anything that might be considered disrespectful. In the case of a mass tragedy, such as the plane crash, a special guest box is established.

At Legacy.com, where the number of postings continues to climb, the tone is more consistent with what was put up Wednesday by someone who was identified only as Brandon of Ham Lake, Minn.

“My thoughts and prayers are with everyone that has experienced loss with Comair Flight 5191. May all the families find peace.”

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