Monday, October 18, 2010

Death and Facebook: Social Media Grieving

It’s unsettling to get a friend request from someone you know is dead.

That happened to me last week. I had been offline, or more accurately, off Facebook while traveling. On the road, I learned that a former colleague had passed away suddenly. He was one of those people with whom I’d been meaning to reconnect since moving back to this part of the world. But I hadn’t yet made the phone call or sent the email. And now he was gone.

Back at my desk, I opened Facebook and found a friend request from him.

The story gets stranger. Within the past six weeks, I’ve lost four friends, aged thirty-something to seventy. Three of them were—and still are—on Facebook, where they endure like cyber-holograms. Dead but seeking friends and wall comments. Still receiving updates and invitations.

Welcome to social media grieving, yet another function of Facebook, whereby friends can process a shared loss via posts, photos, and links like these:

OMG. I can’t believe you’re dead! It's not right.

Sooooo sad you’re gone. We miss you every day.

What’s it like where you are now? It’s lonely here without you.

Remember this pink t-shirt you gave my dog?

SlingerBabe, sweetie, how are you doing without him? Call me, honey. We’ll go get drunk.

here’s that crazy mexican movie you helped me make, you were funny (via youtube link)

* * * * * * * *
For days I followed the growing lists of posts and added my reflections. For whom were we compulsively posting? Not for our dead friends, of course. They would never see the spike in action on their pages. We posted for ourselves and for each other, creating communities of grief and celebrations of life. Like the rest, I hungrily studied tagged pictures and whole irrelevant photo albums, struck by the disconnect between lively, even silly, images and the knowledge that two of these friends hadn’t been well enough to do anything—I mean, anything—for many months. Yet their robustly grinning profile photos beam at us. Carefree, cancer-free, so far from dead.

A medium as fluid and detached from active life as Facebook can magnify the loss of a friend, especially if we didn’t keep up with him in real life. His lingering presence on a bright, pulsating page promises more than he can deliver, an incompleteness that ought to be resolved. We get souvenirs of time spent elsewhere translated into highly abbreviated snippets. Text messages we would not otherwise have read, let alone wondered about, now confound and haunt us because our friend will never be able to explain . . . why he traveled to Romania . . . what made him try to save that crippled turtle . . . and who the hell is SlingerBabe?

Facebook shows me how many lives I’ve touched and lost touch with, what a minor player I became in the long drama of somebody I almost married. The process of social media grieving is painful, personal, and arguably unproductive. When the friending ends forever, the farewells begin. And go on and on. You have to know when to log off. Especially if, like me, you have books to write and a life to live.

Sayonara. Godspeed. I love you still.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nicely said, Nina.

Rickie Kaplan

2:46 AM  
Blogger Nina Wright said...

Thanks, Rickie.

2:48 AM  
Blogger Saloma said...

I've had a similar fb experience that distressed me very much. Thanks for expressing it in a way that I could not.

1:22 AM  
Blogger Nina Wright said...

My pleasure, Saloma. Thank you for your response.

1:26 AM  
Blogger K.P. Kollenborn said...

Last month a friend was discussing this subject matter of what do you do when a friend passes away and his/ hers profile is still on Facebook. It is a difficult subject to talk about, but at the same time, it is an unfortunate reality. Good see that there is a dialouge about it.

8:28 PM  
Blogger Nina Wright said...

You're right, K.P., it feels wrong when the facebook profile outlives the friend, but of course it will happen again and again. Thanks for your comment.

11:24 PM  

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