Social Networking and Grief

The internet is constantly changing every aspect of our lives, even the way we grieve. Kevin Nguyen confronts the online dynamics of mourning.

Disclaimer: The real names of the individuals referenced in the following article have been replaced with the names of lead singers from a ’70s hard rock band.

I got the news from an all-school e-mail—the recent death of another student—which didn’t really give specifics other than the name Sammy, the phrase “accidental death,” and a phone number for Health, Counseling and Wellness services.

I had never met the kid before, so I looked him up on Facebook. It felt like the appropriate thing to do. In his profile picture, Sammy was wearing a t-shirt that said ‘CRACK’ in bold lettering across the chest. Classy. People had already marked up his Facebook wall with messages, mostly variations of “I’ll miss you” and “R.I.P.”

Another student died last fall, and I remember my first instinct was to check Facebook. It’s odd how one’s profile can serve as both an obituary and a memorial.

Dealing with death via social networking isn’t a new concept. MyDeathSpace.com has been around for years, collecting obituaries and tributes to fallen MySpace users. On a deeper end of the web, you might recall the in-game World of Warcraft funeral for a player who died in real life. (The ceremony was, inevitably, crashed by an orc raiding party.)

My friend David died last January. His Facebook profile is still up, and as recently as last week, people are still posting messages on his wall. Even in the days immediately following his death, I found these notes to be discomforting.

It’s not the idea of communicating with the dead, but the fact that someone would knowingly write this kind of message in a public medium. Aren’t these thoughts you’d like to keep private?

I’ve talked about this trend with a few people. Another close friend of David’s offered a cynical answer. “It’s just a bunch of stupid people who want to look like they care.”

I’m not sure if I believe that, but there is clearly some merit behind his skepticism. Scrolling down his profile, I don’t recognize a single one of these posthumous posters. Even though David and I went to different colleges, I should’ve been able to identify at least a few familiar names.

Still, the evidence that draws the most doubt from my skeptical friend is the Facebook group called “We will never forget you David.” The group, which totals around 90 members, urges people to leave “silly or serious stories about him.” The result is a handful of overwrought anecdotes, riddled with grammatical errors and typos. You would think that for those individuals ridiculous enough to take this seriously, they would at least make the effort to run spell check.

Regardless, there are people who are more optimistic about the intentions of David’s wall posters. “Maybe it’s just a way for people to say their final words to him.”

But on his public Facebook account? I give higher regard to someone sending a text message to his deactivated cell phone.

“Well, everyone has a preference on how they want to say goodbye.”

I don’t think David—or anyone with a sense of pride—would really approve of being memorialized in something as trivial as a Facebook group. But I suppose in the long-run, I really shouldn’t care.

A few weeks later, rumors surfaced that Sammy’s “accidental death” translated to a drug overdose. Since I checked his profile the first time, someone has switched the photos from the CRACK t-shirt to a less embarrassing picture. Probably a good call on somebody’s part.

I’ve learned that people will go through extraordinary lengths to protect the memory of the ones they love. I know a family in my hometown that paid off the District Attorney to cover-up the autopsy from their daughters’ drunk driving accident. It’s just like calling an overdose an “accidental death”; it’s almost like amending someone’s Facebook profile.

So what if David’s photo had been the CRACK t-shirt? Well, I’d probably change it, because no matter how I reason it out in my head, no matter how stupid and meaningless his Facebook profile seems in the months after his death, I know that it’s still important, even if it is in a completely superficial way.

At least I’m not defending his memory from a war party of orcs. There’s some consolation in that.

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.