Love and Death in the Age of Facebook: RIP


I recently learned via Facebook about the death of a friend who had fallen out of touch.  He’d stopped sending Christmas cards and changed jobs without sharing a new email address. I probably could have found his home number, but I feared that he’d be distant or sarcastic if I actually got him on the phone.  Instead, I took the easy route and sent him a friend request when I saw that he’d joined Facebook.

About a year later, out of the blue, I received a message that he’d accepted my friend request.  But when I went to his homepage, I discovered a message from his sister that he’d just died.  It wasn’t a complete surprise because he’d had health problems for a long time, but it was still a shock.  And it was hard to see the photos that his sister subsequently uploaded, because they showed a man much older and more fragile than the wiseguy I’d known when we were both starting our careers.

When Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook in his dorm room, he probably never considered that users would one day die or have to deal with death.  Indeed Facebook itself got tripped up on this very issue about five years ago when it started sending reminders to members that they hadn’t been in touch with certain friends in a long time.  Oops, some of those “friends” were dead people with live Facebook pages.  After the requisite outcry, Facebook quickly dumped the reminders altogether.

Facebook is more about beginnings than endings.  It’s about the start of romantic relationships, not their messy conclusions (something I addressed in my previous post “Love and Death In the Age of Facebook – It’s Complicated.”)   And it’s a lot more about births than deaths.

People use Facebook to portray idealized versions of themselves – showing happy vacation photos, sharing videos of the kids playing the piano or humblebragging about how tired they are from their extensive volunteer work.  They never update about the fights they got into with their spouses, their anxieties about money or their erectile dysfunction issues.

But death is not something that can be swept under the carpet.  Over the centuries, society developed certain conventions on how people should publicly acknowledge and manage death (the obit in the paper, the handwritten note, the designated charity, etc.)  Social media is so new, however, that similar conventions are not yet in place for the digitally connected world.

But before we get to some suggested conventions, I’d like to address one irksome aspect of Facebook: the celebrity death.   Whenever someone famous dies, we all feel obligated to comment on it.  Given the outpouring of Facebook responses after Steve Jobs died, you’d have thought the President of the United States had gone to his heavenly reward.  But at least Steve Jobs had transformed the nation’s computer and telecom industries.  When Tom Bosley, the father on “Happy Days,” expired, a lot of people acted like their own father had died.

Here are some suggestions on celebrity-mourning on Facebook:

  1. Don’t say something if you don’t have anything to say.  Being the fourth person to post “RIP Steve Jobs, a great visionary,” is not adding to the conversation.
  2. Try to be original. If you do feel compelled to comment, make an original observation or post a relevant video.  I have developed an aversion to the over-used phrase “thoughts and prayers.”  Don’t say, “my thoughts and prayers are with his family” unless you actually know them.
  3. Keep things in perspective and avoid cheap sentiment.  It’s OK for teenage girls to become hysterical when a celebrity dies, but it’s not really appropriate for adults to get carried away by the death of a TV actor.  It’s worth paying tribute to someone who has made an important contribution to the world, but mere fame isn’t enough to go overboard.  And I say this as someone who wrote an entire column on Cory Monteith.
  4. Minimize the jokes. I know this is hard, especially when a minor celebrity has bitten the dust, but unless it’s a hilariously funny joke, it looks like you’re trying to use someone else’s death top make yourself look funny.
  5. It’s not all about you.  Don’t talk about how this particular passing will leave a “hole in your heart” unless you have a very good reason for having said hole.
  6. If you can’t say something nice, etc.  There’s nothing more annoying on Facebook than reading sentimental tributes to recently departed celebrities and political figures you just can’t stand.  I had to bite my tongue over the weekend as the tweets and Facebook posts rolled in about Helen Thomas, the UPI White House reporter who had just died at 93.  Having once lived in DC, worked in the Reagan administration and seen the press corps up close, there are a number of reporters who made my skin crawl, and she was at the top of the list (I’ll say the same thing about Sam Donaldson when he and his toupee meet their makers). However, there’s no point in upsetting your sensitive Facebook friends with snarky comments about the dead, so keep your vitriol where it belongs – among your ideological comrades.

The celebrity death is a lot easier to deal with than the actual real-life passing of someone close to us.  On the one hand, people don’t want to hear about grim news on Facebook (after all, there’s only a “like” button – there’s no “I’m sorry” button); on the other hand, you want to alert your friends to important news like this so they don’t send you cat videos when you’re in mourning.

To some extent, the following guidelines are driven by the degree of trauma that the death causes; a deeper loss requires a deeper, more thoughtful response.  In all cases, though, I think simplicity is best. Some thoughts on how the bereaved should use Facebook.

  1. For old friends, aunts, uncles, cousins, old bosses, etc. These are losses that don’t send you into deep mourning, but which evoke a certain amount of feeling.  Perhaps someone who was once close but became distant.  It’s OK to post a nice sentiment, tell a cute story and generally reminisce. But don’t act sadder than you really are or have a right to be.  You don’t want to be the guy who’s always in mourning or too aggressively soliciting sympathy messages.
  2. For older parents, siblings, close friends, etc.  These are losses that hurt a lot but don’t send you into existential despair. You might decide to keep it private, but it’s also OK to let people know you have this personal sadness. If you want to post about them or pay tribute keep it short, or link to a eulogy that you or another family member delivered.  You can also post some favorite photos.
  3. For a devastating loss – a child, spouse or young parent.  Fortunately I’ve never seen anyone post about the loss of a child or spouse and I hope it’s because none of my friends have gone through that.  From my own perspective, if you suffer a loss that results in uncontrollable grief, it’s better to stay off Facebook altogether.  At a time like this you need support from your real family and your real friends.  I know that folks sometimes create tribute sites or turn the deceased’s Facebook page into a memorial page, which helps them cope with their grief.  If you do this, my recommendation would be the less said the better. People understand what you are going through.

And now, what’s to be done when someone posts about a death on Facebook?   I adhere to the Miss Manners rule of grieving.  For a major, devastating loss, send a handwritten condolence note.  Dashing off an email or posting on someone’s wall doesn’t show much thought or effort.  If you don’t know the home address, find it.  If the family does create a special Facebook page for tributes, then, sure, write something thoughtful and heart-felt. But show some sensitivity and thoughtfulness.

For other losses, take the lead of the survivors.  If they have posted an obit or photo online and seem to be encouraging feedback, by all means contribute to the tributes.  If not, I think it’s OK to send a private Facebook message that offers sympathy.  On TV cop shows they always say “sorry about your loss” and that seems appropriate if you are expressing sympathy about the death of a person you never knew.

The bottom line is this: it’s dangerous to mistake Facebook for intimacy.  Facebook is fantastic for keeping in touch with a wide circle of acquaintances; it can relieve loneliness and boredom.  But it is not a substitute for the personal connection you need at a time of mourning.  It’s not that Facebook has no role in grieving, it’s that it has a minor role.

  1. Very well done. I fear many rely on Facebook and other social media for “friendship” and intimacy. Excellent piece

  2. Yes, very well done. I also think people mindlessly post on Facebook which should be kept between two people.

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