dealing with grief on social media
Pan Xunbin /

I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I learned that Lou Reed had died. I was in Brooklyn, across the street from Green-Wood Cemetery, at the top of the hill where MacDonald Avenue runs into Tenth Avenue. That’s about the halfway point of my daily walk; I almost always check my iPhone for e-mails and social media updates when I get there. A couple of months later, I found out about Philip Seymour Hoffman in exactly the same way. Both times I was moved to type a few words myself, adding my voice to the digital chorus of grief on social media feeds.

It’s not surprising that the news of a celebrity’s death would be delivered via mass or social media—or that some strangers would respond as if they’d lost someone close to them. Hoffman’s passing inspired nothing like the mountains of teddy bears and bouquets that piled up outside Buckingham Palace before Princess Diana’s funeral, but people who had never met him lit candles in front of his apartment building and poured out their grief to reporters. It might seem a little ghoulish that they would have wanted to insert themselves into a story that didn’t directly concern them, but it’s understandable. People’s feelings about a celebrity are likely to be less ambivalent than the ones inspired by someone they actually know—especially if that celebrity is an actor, whose job is to create emotional connections with strangers. Real-world relationships are messy; virtual ones are comparatively uncomplicated.

In a way, social media makes us all a little bit like celebrities. Our Facebook friends aren’t so much our friends as our public. Some of them we know, of course, but many of them are relatives, colleagues, ex-colleagues, and college and high school friends we’re no longer intimate with, if we ever were. I have an author page, so a lot of my friends are total strangers.

Social media allows us to become our own publicists and spinmeisters. It gives us a means to shape our image and present it to an audience of our choosing. But if a lot of what goes on social media is fake, it can startle us awake sometimes too, rousing long-buried memories and, with them, neglected, repressed, or forgotten versions of ourselves.

Thanks to social media, I recently learned about the death of someone I did know, though we’d long been out of touch. This time I was walking across the Williamsburg Bridge when I saw the news. The last time I saw Liz was just after our mutual friend Brian’s memorial service, some 20 years ago. Someone posted a 35-year-old picture of the two of them dressed up for a party at college, looking exactly as I remembered them, and my heart just about broke.

My Rewire Me colleague Alice (who is both a real friend and a Facebook friend) shared her experience of learning from Facebook about a long-ago boyfriend who was randomly shot and killed by a crazy person. “It reconnected people after years,” she said, “and evoked a powerful nostalgia.”

“The idea that a self-curated identity can or should remain intact after death is a little strange, considering that, outside of Facebook, most of us have only limited control over our identities while we are alive.” Facebook isn’t just a messenger—it provides a forum and a space to mourn. This aspect of Facebook has inspired a scholarly paper, “Virtual Mourning and Memory Construction on Facebook: Here Are the Terms of Use,” by Rhonda N. McEwen and Kathleen Scheaffer of the University of Toronto. Until 2007 Facebook’s procedure upon learning of the death of one of its users was to freeze the person’s page for 30 days, allowing it to stand as a “digital archive of the deceased’s creation of content and interaction with others,” and then erase it.

Following an outpouring of requests to allow the victims of the Virginia Tech massacre’s pages to remain active, Facebook created new protocols that place the page in the hands of friends and family members. Though they are not permitted to alter the original owner’s profile, content in the form of pictures, videos, and remembrances can be added. If Facebook is not informed of a page owner’s death, it remains active indefinitely. This is why Facebook occasionally sends me messages suggesting that I challenge my late friend Amina to a game of Words With Friends.

“I have few illusions about social media. The living use it to put their best faces forward; the dead, when all is said and done, probably don’t care much about what happens to the content that they’d curated. But I owe it a debt of gratitude for reminding me how much I miss some people—and for bringing them back to me so vividly and unexpectedly.” McEwen and Scheaffer report that visitors sometimes send direct messages to deceased Facebook users, much as someone might leave a letter at a gravesite or a public monument. Some mourners welcome the opportunity to post their remembrances and tributes—which in many cases are perceived to be more truthful than published obituaries, which reflect the family’s “privileged” and “authorized” image of the deceased. “The public nature of wall posts and photo captions can create an environment of competition and coercion, inducing a feeling that…rather than being solely a venue for expression of sincere sentiment, Facebook becomes an environment where there is war over who loved the deceased more.” A lot like real life, in other words.

“Wizard of Oz” accounts exist outside Facebook’s terms of use; they occur when someone uses the deceased’s password to assume full ownership of the account. Whether authorized or unauthorized, as new material accumulates on the person’s page, “the individual’s memory archive becomes a social archive….the online self-curation of the deceased is overridden,” McEwen and Scheaffer wrote. In extreme cases, post-mortem alterations can amount to a kind of identity theft.

The idea that a self-curated identity can or should remain intact after death is a little strange, considering that, outside of Facebook, most of us have only limited control over our identities while we are alive. We exist in the eyes of our beholders; all of us are as many people as we know. It makes me think of my friend Brian’s memorial service. His parents had generously arranged for there to be two services—one in a Catholic church near their home in Pittsburgh, the other closer to New York City, where many of his friends lived. Though it made abundant practical sense, most of us suspected that more than logistics were involved. The first service memorialized him as his parents wished him to be remembered, as a devoted son; the second as he did, as a gay man who’d died of AIDS, leaving a grieving partner behind.

Click here to see Rose’s tips for healthy and happy relationships

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