Death and Facebook
I started this post in 2012…
Facebook has made interesting in-roads into our social lives, as it was designed to do. But it has also snuck into the space beyond the social networking. Now for example, first, second and third parties can watch on as relationships begin and end. Where once on termination, a person might not have seen the former significant other for some time and cut off all contact, now they can monitor the other’s fall out or recovery at a distance (unless they have blocked them, a move which nearly merits its own post). Facebook stalking…the new, unpleasant way to end a relationship. I can’t imagine this is conducive to the idea of closure, but it does seem to be a fact of our modern lives.
I started thinking about this when a friend, who lived far away, suddenly died. I learned of this person’s death through Facebook.1 Someone had put up a post starting with “rest in peace…” I remember a panicked search for information. I could confirm the death but not the full circumstances. I remember in the first few days being struck by how affected I was by her death, though I could not say I knew her well. Perhaps it was because I was expecting her to visit in the following months, and she had been on my mind more than usual. I had been looking forward to her visit, and a mental itinerary had been forming of things I thought she would like to do. But it was something more than that. It seemed to be this concurrent dearth and yet overload of information. I could see this very public grieving and yet not know the full cause of her death, and I felt that I could not ask.
This open showing of emotion remains somewhat missing in Irish context – in “real life” – but on the web, and on Facebook, it is growing. Now I hear other friends say they find it strange to see status updates addressing persons no longer living, persons who might never have heard of Facebook. Generally in Ireland, there is thought to be a growing democratisation of the funeral process, possibly as the population moves away from the ethos of the Catholic Church. Where previously, a family might have had little or no input as to aspects of the proceedings, now there seems to be more choice. Decisions about music, types of coffins, locations for burial or cremation can now be part of the process. And a more active input, if possible, in the proceedings is probably healthy. There is a powerlessness, an impotence that death brings with it, whose remedy might begin with the burial process. It does not appeal to everyone however and many families take comfort in not having to deal with the formalities of an Irish funeral in the first private throes of grief.
In the two years since I started this post, we have seen various slight changes in our attitudes to mourning. Now funerals are being skyped to allow emigrants to take part. I see this as a natural progression from death photography, where photographs of the deceased, sometimes surrounded by family, or laid out in mourning would be sent to family members far away. It would confirm the death, but also the ties between the living. It would assure those who could attend that the deceased had been treated properly and given a good send off. Perhaps another descendant of death photography is the recent funeral selfie fad amongst the young and sociable. ‘How disrespectful?!’ the sensible adults proclaimed, ‘the narcissistic youth!’
And yet, what did we expect them to do? We don’t give our young people the framework to discuss or deal with death, because we are so busy ignoring it ourselves. A couple of years ago, the grandmother of a friend of mine passed away. Six weeks later, we were picnicking in my garden and she slipped the news into conversation. I almost missed it. When I questioned her on it, she told me she didn’t know how to tell any of us. She watched as her mother and aunt made phone-calls delivering the sad news to family and friends. She realised that her vehicles for sharing news had become Facebook and Twitter and yet, she had no desire to put such a personal story on her time-line. Perhaps we are part of an age-group trapped between land-line telephones and handwritten letters and social media. We started with the old-reliables but now they are being eaten away by instant communication.2 I don’t mind people knowing if I’m in a relationship (or not) on Facebook or Twitter but I certainly don’t want to share with them the beginning or the end. Our more youthful compatriots adopted these media at younger ages – they share parts of themselves that we, at least in sobriety, cannot. We consider them daft or vulgar or imagine that they do not understand the reach and permanence of the internet. I think we give them too little credit. When teenagers share moments like funeral selfies adorned with sad smileys, some are communicating their grief as best they know how. If we don’t want them to do this, then we have to teach them another way, rather than shutting down those responses because their manner shocks us. Grief is shocking. And when it is restricted, it will find its way out in stranger, more violent vectors. Right now, I think the funeral selfies, though they go against my ideas of common decency, could be a damn sight healthier than anything I ever learned about grief.
But to return to my late friend on Facebook. The page slowly fills with posts not about her, but addressed directly to her. Her close friends and family continue to do so as the months pass, lamenting her absence or recounting a memory. She is tagged at events with others. Through this space, it is almost as if she continues to live a full social life. I was surprised by this initially, and thought as an Irish “emotional alien” that this must have something to do with her nationality. But it does happen here. Weeks ago, someone I did not know personally posted an image of themselves and two lonely words on Facebook and shortly afterwards took their own life. That post remains on the page, but edges slowly out of sight, their last cry to the world answered only by compliments and platitudes, reminiscences and farewells.
For me, my first experience of the role of Facebook in the death of a friend was strange. There was a compulsion to join in this online grieving, and I am certain that her death affected me more than it would have, had there been no Facebook. I probably would not have heard about it until an email I received weeks later. And I would not have borne witness to this sort of online wake. I would have assumed that she was loved – she was a lovely, bright intelligent person, but I would never have known the extent to which her light touched the lives of others, and how dark the world first seemed to them with her loss. Nor could I have seen how, as they continue to include her in their lives, they take the positive with them – that she was here all too briefly but that we were lucky to have known her in that time. So while I see Facebook’s interaction with our personal relationships as unsettling, might something be said for it in the case of death? Could Facebook be teaching us how to grieve?
1. I thought about editing images her page for illustrative purposes, but decided against it. Most of us probably know one person whose Facebook page has become an unintentional memorial↩
2. Yesterday I saw a television advert promoting the use of paper. Paper. ↩