Two weeks ago, a dear friend passed away. In the first days after hearing of his death, Facebook was the hardest place to look, yet the one place I needed to look.
A few hours after receiving the news, I wrote something and shared it as a Facebook note. I posted scanned photos from college—precious moments of youth, debauchery, and experiences I had never shared publicly—from nearly 15 years ago: onto his profile, our friends’ profiles, and my timeline. I sat in front of my computer, clicking on photos people tagged of him: images that conjured memories, that stunned and confused me, that made me feel grateful for knowing him, that devastated me because I realized I didn’t know the man he had become.
Alone, I sobbed. Yet I sobbed with Facebook open—his life revealed and exposed in bits on my screen, his friends spilling tears on his profile. I sobbed at home, by myself, but also with everyone else.
I had never given in to the community of Facebook until that moment. For the first time, its communal space had comforted me.
* * * * *
In 2001, near the end of our years in Los Angeles, an unexpected turn took my dear friend to the middle of Ohio. Aside from a single spontaneous meeting in Chicago sometime between then and now, I lost touch with him after he left California. We talked on the phone a few times—attempts at reconnecting that he initiated, not me. (And I love him for that, among many other things.) He was now married, had two young sons, and built a new network of friends. Once our digital iterations found each other on MySpace, and later on Facebook, our paths had diverged so much that, despite the online reconnection and knowledge that he was right there, he wasn’t really there, just as much as I wasn’t really there to him. To see the life he had built, laid out on his profile, was at once comforting and alienating: What a beautiful life he had created. But how unfortunate that I was no longer a part of it, given that we used to be so close.
And that was that. He was part of my Facebook network, his avatar among all the others. And in that communal, timeless space, I assumed he would always be there.
* * * * *
At some point, if it hasn’t already happened, you will interact with a deceased friend on Facebook for the first time. I once stumbled upon a Facebook profile of a friend of a friend who had died, glanced at the stream of “RIP” comments, and quickly left the page. I felt uncomfortable, as if I’d walked into a funeral parlor during her wake. Up until my friend’s passing, a huge part of me had viewed collective mourning on Facebook, and the transformation of a profile into a kind of tombstone, to be inappropriate and in poor taste—especially when messages for and about the deceased spilled into my news feed.
I feel ashamed for thinking this.
I admit I’m the anal-retentive friend on Facebook who rolls her eyes at things like the sharing of sonograms to the check-ins of friends at bars and airports; or who has been known to unsubscribe from people whose updates are filled with misspellings and LOLs; or who clicks “Unfollow Post” when she doesn’t want to read a back-and-forth of Too Much Information, especially between friends of friends she doesn’t even know. I like my Facebook (and general online) experience to be tidy, uncluttered, and set up just the way I want it. And recently, I articulated this need to control my digital experience and compiled postmortem instructions for the loved ones I will leave behind.
I think about death a lot, but it has been a largely private process. So I don’t really know how to write or talk about death, and even though I wrote my first attempt on the subject last month, I feel alienated from the person who wrote it.
Because I was so methodical. And so cold.
* * * * *
After Whitney Houston died, I read about the ephemeral nature of collective online mourning. I sensed that “social speed of grief” in my Twitter stream: a surge of memorial tweets that faded in a few days. I’m not surprised by our swift, desensitized communal reaction to celebrity death, but it does bother me.
Whether I’m observing our collective response to the death of a famous person, or watching friends mourn someone in my Facebook feed, I realize etiquette on dealing with death and dying on social media is not in place.
But can we instruct people how to mourn?
May I be allowed to grieve in the one space left that my friend and I had in common?
After finding comfort in my friend’s profile in these first weeks after his death, I feel I have no right to judge someone else’s grieving process on Facebook. If I happened to pass through a public place where others were mourning—a church, a cemetery—I would comfort them, or let them cry, or look away, or excuse myself. I would not ask them to stop remembering, or to stop crying.
And so, should our (inter)actions be any different online?
I don’t think there’s a “right” answer to this, and I also don’t know how I personally want to approach this. In the physical world, I don’t stumble upon groups of mourners; I visit a mortuary or cemetery for a reason, and I know what to expect once I’m there. But Facebook is a tangled space of the living and the dead. Today, I scrolled down my list of friends and saw the thumbnail of my friend who just died among the thumbnails of my other friends. We don’t have “specially demarcated places” of rest on Facebook, which philosopher Patrick Stokes points out: “What we have now is not so much like an online graveyard or cemetery; instead we just have these dead people among us.”
Even if I wanted to look away or excuse myself—or if I wanted to forget—I don’t think I would be able to.
* * * * *
The memorialized Facebook profile: it’s a version of a tombstone, but far from stone, and so far from inert. It may seem heavy like stone—weighed down by loss—but it’s alive in the most peculiar way. Last fall, on a Maryland Morning show on death and social media, Cyborgology editor PJ Rey said that dealing with death online may make grieving easier: we can bring the memorial into our home and mourn in a safe place, at our own pace. But while I can “visit” this tombstone privately, any time I want and for as long as I want, it is certainly not mine: It is a place where my friend’s loved ones, scattered all over the world in Africa, Europe, and the US, can meet. It is an ever-changing digital record of our shared weight, the residue of his relationships with each of us, and our collective memory of him.
People interact on his profile in different ways: some talk to him as if he’s still at his computer, and others write messages that face the sky. Here, I feel the friction of inertness and activity—what Piergiorgio Degli Esposti calls a “constant interaction between the digital footprints of the deceased and the people that commemorate its memory.”
We’re carrying on, our friend still among us, sustained by us.
Grieving and healing together is rather beautiful. But online, it’s not that easy. I know some people are uncomfortable with the idea of a memorialized profile—that navigating a space shared with the deceased is creepy. So, as Rey notes, we also have a right to forget. But how do you forget on Facebook? Do you “unfriend” the deceased, which may lessen the number of times you’re reminded of the person online?
Or, is that click meaningless? Would it erase the pain, the loss, or the memory?
* * * * *
I assumed he would always be there.
That’s the eerie thing about Facebook: its ability to keep a mass of people in your periphery. And despite the shock and grief, the gathering we had to celebrate him, and the tears that fall on some days, when I open up Facebook it’s as if he’s still here. We continue to tag photos of him and write messages to him, and as long as his profile is online I will see his face.
It is strange. It is surreal. But right now, that presence comforts me.
Cheri Lucas Rowlands
Writer at Writing Through the Fog. Editor at Automattic.