Finding Out About a Death on Facebook

7 years ago

Last week was a tough one for me on Ye Olde Facebook. On two consecutive days, I learned about two deaths through status updates. The news itself - and the form of delivery - had me reeling with a weird sense of connected disconnectedness. Does death even have a place on Facebook? Do those online relationships really run that deep? How do I properly handle this?

It began on Wednesday when I caught a posting from a childhood friend. Her father had suddenly passed away the previous Sunday and she was in deep mourning. I almost couldn't believe it until I read that sad clue: "Dec. 11, 1938- Jan. 23, 2011." Seeing those birth-death dates sent chills down my spine for a number of reasons.

First of all, a good man was gone. I didn't know him very well but I knew how much he was loved and appreciated by his family, so that's enough. Second of all, someone I love just lost her father and that hurts. Third of all, I'm not physically there to bring a casserole or flowers, or whatever it is that people do in this case. And finally, it reminded me that someday, I might have to make a similar announcement causing me to call my father and remind him not to die … EVER. ("I'll see what I can do, Punkin'. I feel pretty sturdy," Dad said, in between cigar puffs.)

I also felt conflicted about finding out about such a tragedy on Facebook, a place that is usually crowded with jokes, observations, funny links and general life minutia. What is death doing in there? Isn't this supposed to be a casual funky good time? Nevertheless, I posted my condolences and vowed to send a more sincere card through the United States Postal Service. Still, I was flummoxed.

So, I texted several mutual friends to see if they'd heard the news. Seems they were several days ahead of me and Facebook had not played a hand in it. One told me that she "assumed I already knew." When I told her that I found out on Facebook, her response was telling: "Oh Lord! Sorry!" Clearly, she felt bad about me finding out that way and I felt weird too, but I'm still trying to figure out why exactly.

Coming from a generation that grew up with Facebook and lived in a world in which relationships weren’t official until they were on the social networking site, in a strange way finding out about a friend dying in war via Facebook made it more real. You could still go to his profile and see the pictures he’d posted of the nights he spent out before deploying or the hundreds of posts on his wall from grieving friends trying to send a message one last time. In this way such a profile acts as a public memorial, and a welcome one, since its existence reminds all those in his social circle precisely what is at stake in a war that has zero effect on their day-to-day lives.
--Mark Larson, "Death on Facebook", The New York Times, 7/2/10

The next day, I was still pondering all this when it happened again. I spotted another grim post that conveyed yet another death from a childhood friend. (Ironically, both women live in the same town.) This time, it was a baby that had passed, her nephew. I never got any details about circumstances because asking about it seemed cruel, but does it even matter? A new life was over before it even had a chance to begin, and that's just sad no matter what.

So again I responded alongside many others, expressing sadness and support. I could see that her friends didn't really know what happened either since the status update didn't specify so we all just took a giant leap and assumed, which turned out to be correct. It felt awkward and insufficient at such a gut-wrenching time and yet, both woman didn't hesitate to let their respective FB friends know that life had just dealt them a terrible blow.

On one hand, finding out about a death on Facebook seems incredibly impersonal. On the other hand, finding out about it the old-fashioned way - word of mouth, phone calls, email - would have taken much longer. And seeing all the other people react with love and support made an impression; it likely felt like one giant hug to those women - a hug they sorely needed. After all, wasn't Facebook about sharing after all? Friend #2's response to all the online condolences confirmed this:

"Thank you for all of your kind words and prayers. It means a lot to me and to my brother and sister-in-law. Everyone seems to be doing as well as can be expected."

This all reminded me of a strange situation I found myself in back in 2007. (Facebook launched on 2/4/04.) Someone from my youth posted an ancient group photo on FB that included me and several other gals. It also included a lovely woman named Lori, who died of breast cancer at age 40 the previous December. (It was a loss, trust me - Lori was cool.)

After a long list of comments, ("Oh, we looked so young! What happened to us?" and so on) one of the woman chimed in with an inquiry about Lori, as in: "How is she doing these days? Anyone hear from her?"

Dead silence. No response. Nothing. Crickets chirping. The inquiry just hung there like a downed power line and no one wanted to get near it. Did someone respond to her privately? I had no way of knowing and started to bristle at the idea that nobody wanted to acknowledge her death or write her name.

Finally, after three days, I bit the bullet and responded privately: "Kelli, I'm so sorry to be the one to tell you this but our beautiful friend passed away on 12/26/06. If you'd like to sign her online memorial book, go here. RIP Lori. So glad we had our time with this special girl."

Yes, it felt weird and icky but it was done, the information was passed. (I could have called the woman but did not have her phone number or email - we had not conversed in many years. That would have been even more awkward … or maybe I'm just a chicken shit, not sure.) Turns out, others had not responded privately to her question and she was very shocked to hear it. Ultimately, I was glad that Kelli now knew about Lori.

So, with all this in mind, I spent Friday night watching, "The Social Network", directed by David Fincher. The film is superb, as you may have heard from all the accolades it has received - eight Oscar noms, four Golden Globes, including Best Picture, and many others. I think most of us expected the film to be tawdry and silly but it has proven to be a gripping masterpiece.

"We lived in farms, then we lived in cities, and now we're gonna live on the Internet!"
--Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), "The Social Network"

Watching the social struggles and ruthless ambitions of our anti-hero, Mark Zuckerberg (Jessie Eisenberg), I marvel that Facebook began in such shallow waters, as a way to meet hot co-eds and gain membership into Harvard's coveted social clubs. My, my, who could have guessed that it would evolve into something so deeply personal that it has become a force that destroys ("Facebook Causes 1 In 5 Divorces"), connects and now, consoles.

Perhaps Facebook has become a true reflection of us after all. And while it was Zuckerberg's idea (plus a few others, if the movie is correct), it's the inhabitants that have built a virtual community that accurately - sometimes, painfully - mirrors Real Life. And in that world, sincere sympathy is still just love and friendship, no matter how it finds its way to you.

If you have similar stories to share, I'd love to hear 'em.


BlogHer Contributing Editor, Animal & Wildlife Concerns, Proprietor, ClizBiz

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