Tragic reunion: Web unites Collier's friends
In the 21st century, nearly every aspect of life is conducted online: "chatting," researching, downloading music. But with the November 18 death of UVA third-year Michelle Collier, it's clear the Internet has also become an outlet for grieving.
"RIP Michelle, I love you," writes UVA student Lauren Moran on Facebook.com, a website where students can post personal information, pictures, and links to their friends.
"You taught me to tell everyone that I care about them as much as I do," writes Kamaren Suwijn.
Collier is not the first UVA student to be remembered on facebook. Brian Love, a fourth-year and member of the UVA snowboarding team who died at Wintergreen last February, still smiles in a photo on his facebook page.
On October 3, nearly eight months after his death, on what would have been Love's 23rd birthday, friends wrote notes to him online.
"Happy birthday, bro," wrote Sean Scanlon. "You're always in our hearts."
"My, we had two crazy Halloweens together," wrote Anne Eschenroeder. "I love you."
Posting such sentiments on a personal web page is a memorial not unlike the heaps of flowers brought to the site of an accident, says John Boyd, a clinical psychologist.
Finding others who share in the loss is an important step, and online communities provide new opportunities for such connection.
"It's wonderful to express grief over the Internet," Boyd says, adding a few words of caution. "But it should not replace human contact."
Whenever a student dies, UVA spokesperson Carol Wood says, UVA strives to provide such human contact by attempting to offer counseling to every student and faculty member who knew the deceased. Because Collier died just before Thanksgiving break, many of her friends were unreachable. Even the venerable Cavalier Daily didn't have an issue in which to report the tragic news until Tuesday, November 29.
At Hook press time, no cause of death had been determined for Collier, who was discovered on her bedroom floor at 10am Friday, November 18 by her #3 University Court apartment-mate.
A preliminary autopsy showed no sign of foul play or underlying health conditions, and a full toxicology report will not be complete for several weeks, according to Wood.
Though Collier had transferred to UVA from Villanova just this semester, she already had 98 UVA friends listed on Facebook.com, and 200 more at schools across the country, including 60 at the Pennsylvania school.
A tan blond with a bright smile in her online photos, Collier was a onetime competitive swimmer with an interest in surgery administration and supervision. But despite such serious pursuits, she was hardly without a sense of humor.
Among her interests she cited "ruining everyone's lives and eating all of their steak." In a section titled "About Me," she said, "I always judge a book by its cover," before adding, "Kidding... I'm always kidding."
While college students are notoriously computer savvy, friends of the Collier family are also sharing their own memories and grief online.
In a virtual guest book accompanying Collier's obituary in New Jersey's The Record and Herald News, Lou-Ann Hadlock, a swimming coach, recalls Collier's "contagious laugh, deep kindness, New Jersey accent and her friendship."
"I only knew of Michelle from what her proud father had told me, but that was enough to have an appreciation for her talents, warmth, and generosity of spirit," wrote Zoe Bauwin of Highlands, New Jersey.
Collier's parents, Brian and Liz Collier, could not be reached for comment. UVA spokesperson Carol Wood says the school is working on its own plans for a memorial service.
"The death of a student," she says, "is always devastating."
Michelle Collier with friend Kamaren Suwijn
Photo posted at Facebook.com