Grieving On Facebook

People use to visit cemeteries to mourn their lost loved ones. Now we visit Facebook.

When my friend Grant died in 2009 from kidney failure, he didn’t have a Facebook page. He was 26, and otherwise very social, and though Facebook was popular at that time, it was not as unavoidable as it is now. His absence from it was a non-issue. He was regularly tagged in his friends’ photos so when we couldn’t hang out for whatever reason (my daughter’s dentist appointment, his dialysis appointment) I’d see him online. At the local brewpub playing darts, at a friend’s birthday party, at a concert. And it was fine. He was fine. Until he wasn’t.

I did not learn about Grant’s death on Facebook and for that I am grateful. His father called me. I was standing in my dining room and it was warm outside. A friend of my husband’s was sitting at the dining room table with him, talking about a teaching job. My cell phone rang and though my 3-year-old daughter was standing on the coffee table, I answered it. “We lost Grant,” his father said.

In February, Facebook announced that they have changed their policy on how they manage the profiles of deceased users. This doesn’t apply to Grant. But it does apply to other people I have known who have passed away. A 22-year-old woman and a 70-something-year-old man. A 26-year-old woman and a 30-something-year-old man.

They were Facebook users and when they died their profiles were left as they had left them. This state, this sense of being swept up in a rapture, or abducted by aliens, this sudden absence, wasn’t as eerie as the status updates they kept posting. One man in particular, whom I’d met the weekend before he died, continued to post updates for years after his death. In fact, he still does to this day.

What’s strange is that I know it’s not him posting these updates, of course. It must be a friend or family member who has gained access to his profile, someone who knew the right email address, and password. But since I didn’t know this man very well, when I see his name and image pop up in my newsfeed, I wonder. I begin to think that maybe he didn’t die. Maybe that was someone else. Keeping track of all the people you know on Facebook is a job unto itself.

Suppose I run into someone at the coffee shop whom I thought had died the previous autumn, but there she is, ordering a flat white and scratching her shin with the toe of her running sneaker. Or worse, what if someone I care about dies and because no one alerts anyone to such things with a phone call, letter, or email anymore, I miss it. My “newsfeed” is over run with cat memes and gun lobbyists and I’m only half paying attention anyway. So just say, hypothetically, that a close friend’s father has died (I didn’t even know he was ill!) and I don’t find out about it until six months later, when I see his funeral mentioned in another Facebook post.

Facebook’s new policy will serve to make it clear to distracted, over-extended individuals like myself who, exactly, is dead and who is alive. A tasteful banner reading “Remembering…” or some such thing (the as-yet-not-dead person can choose the banner, like one chooses a profile picture,) will appear across the top of users photo. I find this practical. But I also know that it will force me to recognize death in a way that I have been able to avoid in the last few years. If dead people keep posting status updates I don’t have to face the fact that they are gone and not coming back. When the number one social media platform in the world let’s me believe, however passively, that it has outsmarted death, or maybe more accurately, that it has outsmarted grief…well, I believe it.

The new policy, with it’s gentle, yet firm banner (“Remembering….”) will also make it slightly more awkward for people to use Facebook as a portal into the beyond, as many of us have been doing. We may feel that it is less appropriate to address someone’s Facebook likeness as though it were the actual person herself. People used to visit cemeteries for just this reason. They would visit the gravesite of a loved one to mourn. To cry. To laugh like lunatics. To talk to the person who is not there. But people don’t do this as much anymore. At least people who are not immediate family to the deceased don’t. I don’t. I go to Facebook, instead.

But cemeteries have a way of wringing out our grief, of helping us move in and through it. Because it becomes clear to you after a short time in a cemetery that the spirit of your loved one is not there. That it has gone somewhere. Maybe to that better place that the hopeful among us keep talking about.

I miss Grant, but he is not on Facebook. I think about him everyday, and though it makes it harder for me to not have a place online to visit his likeness, it forces me to pull out pictures. Actual printed pictures. It forces me to talk about him, to remember his jokes. I put a picture of Grant in a frame and place it on my daughter’s nightstand. She looks at it and asks me to tell her again, tell her a story about Grant.

Cameron Dezen Hammon lives in Houston with her husband and daughter. She is an MFA candidate at Seattle Pacific University, and her work has appeared in NYLON Magazine, Gigantic Sequins and Killing The Buddha.

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