Grieving in the Age of Facebook

/ January 14, 2011

Lady with a  Laptop - iStockThis past year a college friend passed away. I realized that this was the closest and most poignant death I faced since joining Facebook and realized that this social media outlet has changed the process of grieving.

My generation – late 20-somethings to early 30s – is entering a unique phase of our lives when it comes to death. By now, most of us have presumably experienced the death of at least one close person and we may be seeing it more often with aging relatives. We are able to grapple with the notion that death is a fact of life. However, we are still so young and have a sense of immortality that when the tragedy hits one of our own it is particularly surreal.

We are also getting to the phase in our lives when it becomes more and more difficult to maintain all of those friendships, with which we left college, at the same intensity level when we saw each other on a daily basis. People move, families begin, and careers consume time. We slowly discover the individuals with whom we will remain in constant contact. Nevertheless, Facebook provides the medium through which we keep tabs on our distant friends and receive news of graduations, promotions, marriages, births and even deaths.

After the news of my friend’s passing, I knew there was going to be an outpouring on Facebook. My friend was an avid Facebook user – posting often on surf reports for his much anticipated surf outings or on the snow conditions and predictions of fresh powder for his time on the slopes. It was only fitting that people’s grief for his passing would pour out onto Facebook and they used the forum to share memories and photos and to say their good-byes.

I found myself wrestling with how I felt about the use of Facebook in the grieving process. Was Facebook an appropriate way to send condolences to others and even to the family of the deceased? What about friends who had not received personal news of the death and would find out when they signed onto to Facebook for their daily perusing? Should we be finding out about such sadness through Facebook?

Still I found comfort reading the numerous messages from other friends and even more so from my friend’s brother’s message – presumably the ambassador for the family to our world of friends. It was with these messages that I realized Facebook has changed the way of grieving.  Facebook, for the average person and for the average community of friends and family, is what the news outlets and televisions are for the deaths of celebrities and public figures. Facebook allows us to express our grief and to share our grief with one another across vast distances.

Facebook is trying to determine how to handle user profiles when the user passes away, especially as user demographics continue to increase in age as “people over 65 are adopting Facebook at a faster pace than any other age group” (See The New York Times article: As Facebook Users Die, Ghosts Reach Out). Friends and family members can report that a user has died and can request that a person’s profile is memorialized which “removes certain more sensitive information like status updates and restricts profile access to confirmed friends only” (See Facebook’s Help Center).  Immediate family members can request the removal of a deceased member’s profile through this form.

It is not only Facebook that is presenting estate planning issues but social media and the vast world of cyberspace in general.  How do you handle a person’s electronic or cyber presence upon passing?  There are a multitude of websites that are now catering to individuals to protect their digital information during life but will ensure that upon death, surviving family members and/or friends are granted the necessary information to access emails, blogs, and other electronic or social media.  Some allow you to store passwords and directives for your electronic “property” (Entrustet) and others allow you to send messages to loved ones after you die (Deathswitch). Scroll through the recent New York Times article Cyberspace When You’re Dead to explore some of these websites that offer “digital-estate-management services.”

Facebook, while somewhat private but for all intents and purposes public, is proving to offer consolation for what are typically very personal events. In some sense it allows us to feel as though our loved ones are not completely gone as their “presence” can appear periodically each time we login.

I find myself still checking my friend’s profile to see what news has been sent his way – again, comforted by seeing that I am not the only one still thinking of him often.  On his birthday, best wishes were sent to him from across the country – thanking him for the snow that had been delivered to a multitude of places. I think of these messages, and the ones I’m sure I will continue to follow, and how they will never been read by our friend.  But I believe the hope is, and it probably is this hope that drives people to post messages, that these words will be tossed into cyberspace and shall find a way to transcend to the world in which our friend now plays.


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