Dealing with Death on Facebook

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I woke up about this time last year to a notification that I’d been tagged in a Facebook post by an old grad school friend. I clicked on the link. It was not a school photo, like I expected, but a post that our classmate Gigi, had died. I didn’t even know he was sick. Gigi was the second friend I’d lost through Facebook so far that year.

A few weeks before that, I found out that my friend Dave had passed away through a Facebook. I was surprised as I had been with Gigi. I knew Dave through an outdoor club: I knew he was sick, but still, he seemed strong: all summer long I’d “liked” pictures of his hikes and climbs.

When I read that Dave had died, I didn’t just feel sad, but something harder to recognize, something that felt like embarrassment, or shame. I’ve always believed that we should talk more about death and grief, but is it really appropriate to post someone’s death on their wall? What are the rules of Facebook? Aren’t some things too sad to share? Or too private? And what would my friends have wanted? It’s not like they could remove a post if they didn’t like it. And besides, what was I supposed to say? What could I say? What could anyone? I didn’t understand. How could I have been so out of touch?

The only thing I knew, was that I didn’t “like” it at all.

I still hadn’t figured out how to deal with Dave’s death when I followed my friend’s link to Gigi’s page.  His profile picture showed him bald, smiling wryly from behind a blue surgical mask.

Gigi and I became friends–before Facebook even existed– probably because he’d just quit smoking. When all our classmates went outside for a cigarette, we sat together and talked. About everything. There was a moment of romance and then graduation. I moved to a different country, and fell out of touch. But I knew he’d always be there and one day we’d look each other up. I was wrong. Now it was too late.

Over the course of the day, Gigi’s Facebook page filled with photos and memories, gratitude and hugs, from everyone who had known and loved him, just as Dave’s page had, and I felt the same shame. I didn’t know what to say. Part of me wanted to say all the things that everyone else had. The other part of me wanted to curse Facebook, or fairness or God, to apologize for being a bad friend, to get mad.

I thought about getting off of Facebook entirely, but was already feeling out of touch. But when I logged on my entire feed was @Dave, tagging Dave, thanking Gigi, loving Gigi, showing Dave triumphant, literally, on mountaintops. I should have been grateful that they were so well loved, but selfishly, I wanted the posts to stop. With every post and tag I got upset all over again.

I wasn’t able to go to Gigi’s real world memorial, but I went to Dave’s. After the service, I expected that the Facebook wake would stop.  But for weeks and then months, and almost a year now, they have not. But over the weeks and months, my sense of shame and loss, privacy and panic, turned into a kind of wonder.  On Facebook, Dave and Gigi were not dead. Their memory did not fade. Almost the opposite. As time passed and people dug up old photos they grew healthier, younger. They became more alive.

This morning, I woke up to another email notification. “Reconnect with your friends on Facebook.” There were two pictures, one of Dave waving back down the trail, and another of Gigi, with the smile I remember, on our last day of school. I felt as happy as I did sad. On Facebook, Gigi still has all his brown hair.

5 thoughts on “Dealing with Death on Facebook

  1. Interesting perspective(s). I went through very similar with the passing away of a very close middle school friend whom I used to hand out with back in SL. I lost touch with him when he went to the UK and Ohio where he did very meaningful work as a social activist and a social worker (I had little or no knowledge of his impact until after he passed away). It was only through FB that I was able to know how much he was admired and loved by various people he interacted with during the time I had lost touch with him. It was very sad and guilt ridden for me as I had not made attempts to contact him or go see him when I knew he was not doing that great health-wise. I saw people making lovely comments about the life of an individual that you wish you knew when he was still alive. That said, FB makes life way more connected than ever before and that makes me feel grateful, however much I hate FB at times!
    Enjoyed reading your post Beth!
    -Prasanna

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