When I first had a Facebook friend pass away, I hadn’t even remembered that we were Facebook friends. This was the pre-newsfeed days; when you only really found out about friends or what was being written on pages unless you actively went to the page. I had heard in passing that someone I had known on the high school debate circuit had a tragic accident; he’d fallen from a boat in the lake and drowned. It was sad, but we weren’t that familiar with each other, and I wasn’t sure what to say, if anything. I went to his page, and saw it flooded with comments: “RIP” and “you’ll be missed” and “I can’t believe you’re gone” were repeated over and over. And there, at the bottom of the page, was a status update from him, a post talking about how he had weekend plans to go to the lake. I can still remember how eerie it was to me; the juxtaposition of this text that was written by the deceased, and the slew of comments that followed about his death. I closed the page, and moved on, it was just too strange for me to deal with at the time.
As Facebook evolved, I began to get sidebar messages suggesting that I “reconnect” with my friend who had passed. It had been almost a year—and I wondered—what would I see on his page? I went to it, out of a morbid sense of curiosity perhaps, and was surprised to see that the initial list of comments from friends had easily more than tripled in that year. On top of that, there were posts from as recent as a few days early—comments on holidays, of special memories, of missing him more each day that passed. I felt awful, and closed the page, feeling that it was wrong that I was looking upon these private sentiments, messages from people who had actually been close to him; I was just a Facebook friend, an acquaintance from years past that was sent a friend request when friending every last person you had ever met was the cool thing to do.
Since then, I’ve had two more Facebook friends pass away; I say “Facebook friends” because they aren’t individuals I would have characterized as close personal friends, or even people I had seen in the last few years. In these cases, like the previous, I felt that it was not necessarily my place to say anything on their page, after all, I probably would not have written something on that day if they were alive, so why should I get to share in the grief of those close to these people now that they aren’t?
The researcher in me needed to understand what I was going through, and once I began to read about, I realized I wasn't the only one wondering how to move forward (Time, Chronicle)
. Standard beliefs that permeate society about grief is that its highly personal, thus, highly private. Public displays of grief or mourning are limited to a funeral and/or wake for the deceased, and from there, it is left up to each individual within the social network of the deceased to navigate how they move forward. But in a digital age, when so much that is typically private is made public, including grief, how do we negotiate something as simple as the existance of a Facebook profile page created by the deceased?
I have now completed two articles on grief communication and social media, having conducted 30+ interviews with college students on my campus on the subject to better understand what this process means not only for how we communicate through social media, but how we come to understand what it means to grieve. Those interviewed had varying opinions on the social support they felt could be obtained in times of grief through the profile page, as well as expectations for who had the "right" to interact with the profile, and when.
What primarily stuck out was that even though there are clearly multiple individuals who DO choose to write on the page expressing their grief, most individuals still think that the act is too private to display on a public site like Facebook. Those who did interact with the page suggested they did so more for the family and other friends, than themselves. A few individuals spoke about sending private Facebook messages to the deceased; further illustrating that the private nature (presumably, these messages will never be read) of grief.
This public-private tension is something that is often discussed in terms of digital content; decisions to engage in information-sharing and social media enable us to share with a wider public information that might typically be viewed as "private". Yet we don't often think of it in terms of grief; and I hope that after reading this, you pause and consider what this means for you: do you think that your need to maintain a connection with a friend after they passed should supercede that of other members of the social network, who struggle with the constant reminder that is a profile page? Or do you think that each person must grieve on their own terms, and leave the Internet out of it?
I'm currently in the process of analyzing the types of messages posted on the profile page of the deceased, in hopes of better understanding those who felt the need to communicate through Facebook post-death.