Coping with Death on Facebook

Should it be easier to pass away gently on social media? Three people who have suffered loss share their stories.

Bolivia Williams
Courtesy Stephen Williams
Bolivia Williams, right, and her mother in July 2009

Before we all plugged in and logged on, news of a loved one’s death traveled from one person to another. The passing was memorialized in a church or temple, sobbed over at a graveside, or suffered in silence. Today, texts and e-mails share the story. And social networks offer many more people the opportunity to both honor and grieve the departed. Facebook is the new funeral.

“With a funeral, there is a specific time and place for people to mourn,” says Jed Brubaker, a University of California, Irvine, social media scholar. “On Facebook, anyone at any time can engage in this process.”

Some experts suggest that these electronic elegies impersonalize grief, even trivialize death. Likewise, some families choose not to keep their loved one’s memory alive online. Others, though, find that social networks help with sharing memories, offering and receiving emotional support, and even raising funds for the bereaved.

The following experiences reveal the complexities of grief and the power of social networks to alter how we commemorate our dead.

I Feel Like I Can Still Talk to My Mom—by Bolivia Williams
I was the only person in my family who was Facebook friends with my mom, Rynn, when she died four years ago. At the time, my brother and sister were too young to have accounts. As soon as we got the news that she had committed suicide, I posted on Facebook, “RIP Mom …”

I immediately felt a kind of release.

I thought it would be an easy way to let everyone know what had happened. Right after I published the status, so many people offered their support and shared stories about her, some of which I had never heard before. In that moment, the circle of people that I could rely on grew.

I like to visit my mom’s profile to tell her things that I’m doing and to look at her pictures and at ones that other people post of her. I sing with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, and we did a concert for the tenth anniversary of 9/11, which was also my mom’s birthday. It was a really emotional day. I posted, “You’d be proud of me—I’m singing at the site of the World Trade Center tomorrow. I know you will be looking down, smiling.” When I’m writing to her, it feels like I’m still in contact with her.

In the beginning, I wasn’t sure how to deal with her death. But I’ve grown and healed. I haven’t been on my mom’s page in seven or eight months, but I would miss it if it were gone. Her profile is concrete proof that my mom existed.

In some sense, her profile allows me to think that she’s still here, which can be comforting at times. Facebook has a way of doing that. It creates a middle ground between being alive and being dead.

I used to go on my mom’s profile a lot after she died to look at her pictures, which would make me feel really sad. Now, when I visit it, I smile more often than cry.

Williams, 17, is a student at Bard College. She lives in New York City.

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