11 Etiquette Rules You Need for Dealing with Death on Social Media
The digital age makes it easy to share everything all the time—which can be problematic when someone passes. From knowing what not to post to avoiding security setting snags, here's the best way to handle a loss online.
There’s no right way to deal with death on social media
The first thing to bear in mind when sharing or hearing of a loss on social media is that everyone is different. “When it comes to grief, there’s no one way to deal with it, and no correct prescription, so each person’s way needs to be respected,” says Fran Walfish, PsyD, a Beverly Hills-based family and relationship psychotherapist, and author of The Self-Aware Parent. “When people are experiencing a loss, it’s very important to step aside, not tell them what to do, and take your cues from them.”
Let the closest loved ones post first
While anyone affected by a death can feel a strong impulse to share the news on social media, such announcements should be left to the deceased person’s closest family members, who should have the prerogative to decide when, what, and how they want to post. “Sharing is really for the closest loved ones’ benefit, so leave it up to that core group to post the initial news of the passing,” says Stef Woods, a full-time instructor at American University who teaches classes on topics including social media. “Note what information has been included or excluded from that post, then follow suit and show support.” A recent study found that the content of those posts can vary depending on the social media platform used. In a 2016 paper, two University of Washington students who had analyzed the feeds of deceased Twitter users found, “People use the site to acknowledge death in a blend of public and private behavior that differs from how it is addressed on other social media sites,” according to a press release. (Here’s how people who have suffered losses coped with death on Facebook.)
Because social media has the power to reach such a large network simultaneously, it can be a helpful tool for a family dealing with preparations for a service or memorial. “When the loss is fresh and there are lots of plans to coordinate, it can save people time and emotional energy rather than re-sharing the same information in call after call,” says Woods. If you’re on the phone with someone, she explains, you could get stuck in a conversation that’s not just about you relaying information, it’s also about the other person processing it, and you may not have the time or mental patience for such an exchange. “It can be easier to post the information on Facebook, and then go focus on logistics. It can help give the closest loved ones their own time,” she adds. When it comes time to attend the service, keep these funeral etiquette tips in mind.
Get your facts straight
While it seems like it should go without saying, when posting about a death on social media, it’s especially crucial to make sure your information is accurate. “I have a niece who was in the ICU for many months with pneumonia teetering between life and death, and all of a sudden on Facebook, I saw a close friend of my brother express condolences, but my niece was still alive!” says Walfish. She rushed to do damage control by contacting the friend—who was a kind, well-meaning person—to prevent her brother from ever seeing such an upsetting post. Fortunately her niece ultimately recovered. “We were lucky in my case, but you can’t always erase what goes out there.” Avoid these other social media mistakes that can hurt your relationships.
Be careful with details
People hearing of a death on social media may want to get more information, understandably, but your curiosity is less important than the family’s need for privacy. “If the core group doesn’t indicate the details of how someone passed in the post, there’s some reason they included or excluded that information,” says Woods. If you happen to know details that weren’t publicly shared by the relatives, it isn’t your place to put that information out there. “Let the core group take the lead,” adds Woods, who points out that ultimately, “finding out the Why and How doesn’t change the fact that someone is gone.” In addition, whether you’re the closest family or the most distant friend of the deceased, be aware that whatever information you post could be viewed by children. “So if God forbid there was a suicide or any kind of questionable circumstances to the death, be very cautious about how and what you say if you don’t want a teenager or younger child to see it,” says Walfish.
Respond in the medium in which you received the news
Remember that in the first hours and days after someone passes, the loved ones of the deceased are dealing not only with a storm of emotion but also a long list of logistics. While social media can help that core group to share information more easily, such a public announcement can leave them open to getting bombarded with hundreds of calls and texts. “If you’ve been notified on social media rather than receiving a call, that means for whatever reason that the closest family members didn’t want to or didn’t have time to talk to everyone,” says Woods. “So when acknowledging the news, stick to the medium through which you received the information.” If someone posts on Facebook, she says, reply briefly online, but don’t rush to call or text; instead, give the family space to deal with what they need to deal with. “Wait and reach out later,” Woods advises. “The loss will still be felt long after the services have passed.” An exception may be if you can offer to help in any way—by taking care of children, for example, or hosting out-of-town relatives who may come in for the funeral.
Decide whether to keep the departed’s online profiles
There’s a good chance that the person who passed has an online profile, and it’s up to their loved ones to decide what to do with it. “Sometimes a person’s profile page is deleted, sometimes the page is kept up, sometimes a separate memorial site is created,” says Woods. “It’s all up to what’s best for those who are grieving the most—there’s no right or wrong way to handle it.” If a deceased person’s Facebook page, for example, continues to be active with respectful photos and posts, it can become a space where everyone can process the loss and remember together. “It can be healthy to express that those who are gone are not forgotten,” says Woods. For some, however, maintaining a lost loved one’s online presence can be detrimental. “When someone keeps a deceased person’s page alive, in a way it’s parallel to memorializing the deceased by making a shrine in your home,” says Walfish. “It can stop some people from moving forward in their life; it’s like not allowing the final resolution of acceptance.”
Make your own wishes known
When it comes to looking ahead to your own passing, if you have specific wishes about your own social media presence, share them with your loved ones, says Pamela Sandy, CFP, 2017 chair of the Financial Planning Association. “Because we live so much of our lives on various social media platforms, we need to think about whether we want all that out there after we’re gone,” she says. Speaking from personal experience, Sandy adds that when her significant other passed, she wasn’t sure of his wishes for his Facebook page and didn’t know where his username and password was. After a time, she found his login credentials and deleted his page, which is what she believes he would have wanted. In order to help her clients avoid similar situations, Sandy includes Everplans, an online platform that stores people’s changing usernames and passwords to be accessed by their loved ones after their passing—among the services she offers. Additionally, in 2015 Facebook introduced a feature that lets people choose a legacy contact—a family member or friend who can manage their account when they pass away, according to a company press release. Discover other smart ways to prepare for death.
When you’re trying to show support for someone who has experienced a loss, avoid comments containing trite platitudes such as “They’re in a better place,” especially if you don’t know the family’s beliefs. “For example, saying the person lived a long life may not sit well because the family may not feel it was long enough,” says Woods, adding that it’s fine to be honest and say you don’t know what to say. “It’s OK to write ‘I’m so sorry; there are no words,'” says Woods. “It’s OK to be honest and sincere.” Whether sending an email or mailing a card, learn the best ways to express your condolences.
Check your privacy settings
When posting, sharing, or commenting on any sensitive information—such as a death—make sure you understand who will be able to see it. “People have different social media privacy settings, so they may think no one can see a particular post when they can,” says Woods. “If you’re sharing a post, say, on Instagram and connecting it with Facebook, it automatically defers to your Instagram setting. Or your phone may have a different default setting than your laptop.”
Don’t give into a grief Olympics
Sometimes a close family member’s post about the loss of a loved on can attract not only sincere condolences, but also comments in which more distant family or friends get carried away with their own feelings. “It can become a ‘grief Olympics,’ and it should be avoided,” says Woods. Once news of someone’s passing has been announced by their core group, she says, avoid comments about yourself such as bemoaning how hard the news is for you. “If you feel the need to process your own grief, record that processing on your own page,” she suggests. “And do so without tagging any of the core loved ones or the person who passed. If they want to know your views, they’ll see it.”