How to Facebook when someone is hurting


In 2011 I had my first experience with death. Well — Facebook death. 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 just less than a month after my mother-in-law’s death and we were already having an emotional weekend — this being the first time we’d visited their family's favorite winter space since she died. I was absentmindedly scrolling through Facebook and had that unique level of shock that comes when you see RIP messages on a friend's wall (this was the pre-timeline days).  

At the time I was slightly disgusted that I heard about Chris’s death through Facebook. I wondered what this said about friendship if it was suitable for death announcements to be shared on social media. In today's social climate, this thought is laughable. 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. My sister kept a barebones online presence, and her security restrictions made it so that I couldn't share the news with her friends unless I logged in as her. As I sat crying on her bed, I used her phone to log into her account to inform her old coworkers, college classmates, and the random people from abroad that she always accepted as friends even though she had no idea who they were, that she was dead. Given that Alison 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 asking them to spread the word for me (thankfully they obliged).  When I returned to college after his funeral, I felt terribly uncomfortable. I had no idea who knew or didn't know what had happened to my family and I spent the remaining year and a half of school with anxiety as my long-term companion. One of the benefits of Facebook is that the wide net helps you spread your message, even if the person is no longer part of your daily life. I purposefully made my message about Alison public so that if people look me up, they will know what happened. 

Signing into Alison's private (though barebones) Facebook page was very uncomfortable. One a lighter note, one of my sister's favorite pranks was to steal my phone and like/comment on old friends' (the ones you know but haven't spoken to in 10+ years) social media presence. Always embarrassing but also hilarious. 

Social media death etiquette isn't intuitive, and you may not be sure of what to do if you haven't lost someone in the age of Facebook death announcements.  Here are some important tips that I've learned from experiencing how people interacted with me after my sister died:

Don’t like the notification   

Facebook has long since added a variety of reaction choices that you can choose from for each 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/card/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. Imagine 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 the bereaved see that five minutes later you posted, “Can’t wait for Rachel’s Bachelorette Weekend!!  Vegas!!!”  Your condolences are negated. 

The bereaved will be drawn back to Facebook to read through comments to their post (or to try to numb brain) 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 your life. If you're unable to take a break, then it can be a good idea to temporarily block the bereaved from seeing your posts.

Posts like this can probably wait!

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 understandable and acceptable! We often want to put words to complicated emotions and share memories or tidbits about the people we love who have died. The caveat here is to think about the intention behind your post. I had the experience of seeing a post about my sister from someone who didn’t really know her. This poster then got a bunch of condolence messages about my sister's death, and this was really hard for me to read. I was angry that this person was getting sympathy for a loss when it wasn’t her loss at all. She didn't know my sister and it felt like she was getting misplaced attention because of my family's tragedy (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 deceased 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 choice should be left to the family.  

Alison (right) and me - long before I had to think about Facebook death etiquette.

Don't take it personally...

Don't be offended by the bereaved's social media behavior in the days/weeks/months following a life-altering event. I unfriended over 400 people after my sister died. I mostly cut ties with folks because I was hurt by their silence after Alison's death and interpreted their failure to touch base as a signal that my sister's death and our pain don't matter.

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 seemed 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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