How to Facebook when someone is hurting

In 2011 I had my first experience with death. Well - death on Facebook. A former classmate of mine had died in the early morning hours in a motorcycle accident. At the time I was in New Hampshire with my husband and father-in-law.  It was not even a month after my mother-in-law’s death. We were already having an emotional weekend - this being the first time we’d visited their family condo since she died. I was scrolling through Facebook and had - what nearly all of us have by now experienced - the shock as I scanned through RIP messages on my friend's wall (this was the pre-timeline days).  


Seven years ago I was slightly disgusted that I heard about Chris’s death through Facebook. I wondered what this said about our friendships that death was shared on social media (this thought is almost laughable in 2018). I now see this type of news delivery as fairly routine, and I'm totally ok with it too. Twenty four hours after my sister died I wrote a post on my wall delivering the news. A day after that I had the even more unpleasant experience of logging into her account to inform her Facebook friends of her death.  Given that she died unexpectedly, and only a handful of people knew that she had been diagnosed with cancer the year before, I know that the news was shocking to them, just as Chris' death had been shocking to me.


My post for Alison.

While we mostly use social media to share the filtered parts of our lives/real parts of our lives with filters, I’m more and more open to using Facebook and other social media platforms to share the truest human experiences. When my dad died in 2004, Facebook was still reserved for those in the Ivy league.  At that point I relied on calling a couple of friends with the news and begged them to spread the word for me - thankfully they obliged.  When I returned to college after his funeral, I felt terribly awkward. I had no idea who knew or didn't know what had happened to me.  One of the benefits of Facebook is that it's easier to get your message out, even if the person is no longer part of your daily life.  I purposefully made my message about Alison public so that if people looked me up, they would know what had happened. 


If you haven't delivered terrible news on Facebook, the etiquette might not be intuitive.  Here are some important tips that I've learned from seeing how people interacted with me after my sister died.

Don’t like the notification   

Facebook has long since added the like/love/haha/wow/sad/angry choices for reacting to a post. It’s best to use a love or sad expression. If you hit the wrong one - you can change it!

Add a comment 

You don’t have to post a reaction, but you should communicate with the person in some way. If you’re close, it’s best to have personal communication (private message/text/phone call/email). If the person is an acquaintance, it’s ok to leave a comment. Even if you’ve posted a reaction (sad face or love), you still need to comment. Check out this post for tips on what to say/not to say.

Do not post trivial matters to your own account for a few days (or longer).

This partly depends on how close you are to the person who is experiencing the death/diagnosis. But it is generally respectful to avoid posting frivolous annoyances or sharing how wonderful life is for you at the moment. Image that you posted a comment on their wall like, “I’m so sorry that this is happened, my heart is broken for you and your family.” And then they see that five minutes later you posted, “Can’t wait for Rachel’s Bachelorette Weekend!!  Vegas!!!!”  Your condolences are negated.

Your friend will be drawn back to Facebook to read through comments to their post and they will see what people are posting.  For them time has stopped, and it’s impossible to image that anyone is able to continue on as if life were normal. Do them a favor and take a little break.


This is certainly a unique aspect of social media and it requires supporters to be thoughtful. In real life you wouldn't respond to someone telling you their mother died with a slideshow of your pregnancy photos. We don't often think about how our day-to-day posts might be interpreted by someone in pain. It is ok that life didn't stop for you, and it's ok to want to share the things you like to share. If you're unable to take a break, this type of scenario leads itself to temporarily blocking someone from seeing your posts.

Do not make it about you.  

If you knew the person who died you may want to write something about them on your own account. This is fine, of course, given that you knew this person.  I had the experience of seeing a post about my sister from someone who didn’t really know her. They then got a bunch of condolence messages about her death which were really hard for me to read.  I was angry that this person was getting sympathy for her loss when it wasn’t her loss at all (you can probably tell that this is still a sore spot for me).


Facebook is designed to be addicting.  We get a dopamine release when we receive notifications.  Be mindful that you innermost drive behind sharing news about a death is not to get attention.  

Thoughtfully interact with the deceased person's page

If you hear news of a death or diagnosis, do not write about it on that person's page unless it's already been done by a family member/someone very close to the person. For example, if you hear that a friend has died, you shouldn't write on their wall unless there has been a notice about the death already posted. You want to avoid informing people who are close to this person (family/significant other) about the death before they hear about it first hand.  

Also, do not report someone as having died on Facebook - that is not your decision. Switching a page to 'in remembrance' changes the way people can interact with the page and that decision should be left to the family.  

My sister and me - long before I had to think about Facebook death etiquette.

One last point. Don't be offended by the poster's social media behavior in the days/weeks/months following a life altering event. I unfriended over 400 people after my sister died. I cut ties with some folks because they offended me (typical reason being that they had not connected with me about my sister's death). Other offenses were by no fault of the person. I unfriended people with sisters, I unfriended people with brothers who had a similar age gap as me and my sister, I unfriended people who are happy, I unfriended people who knew me as a child, I unfriended people who still had everyone in their immediate family. I unfriended almost everybody.  

But I kept the people who know deep sadness.  Right now - these are my people.





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