Death and Facebook: A New Type of Supportive Therapeutic Community

I wrote an original post on this topic a few months ago and then decided it was problematic and needed to be reworked.

The purpose of that post and this new post is to show how Facebook can have an unusual, unique, therapeutic and healing aspect to it…

Besides all the “mundane” aspects of “status” posts on Facebook that many people complain about, (which, by the way, I actually don’t mind at all as I enjoy seeing photos of someone’s dinner or their kid doing something amusing), and other non serious or silly parts of the Facebook process, and also the professional aspect of Facebook, there is something quite new and interesting about Facebook in terms of its relationship to death. To begin with, I am a person who really enjoys Facebook and social media both personally and professionally, as those who follow this blog would know from my posts… So, I find lots of aspects of Facebook to be therapeutic, especially Facebook groups involving something creative or support groups…

I’m sure as long as Facebook has existed, there has been space on it for posts about death, whether the death of a celebrity or of an actual Facebook “friend”. I am curious to know how long Facebook has been a place for death announcements and mourning groups, and if activity of this sort has increased in the last few years or with growth of users…

So I just found an interesting article about this whole topic. I am not sure if I am adding anything new by writing this post, but perhaps writing from the perspective of a therapist, I can make this post different.
Here is the link to it, from Mashable.com, which I will quote from on here.
http://mashable.com/2013/02/13/facebook-after-death/
It’s entitled “How 1 billion People Are With Death and Facebook”, a title I might have changed to “With Death Through Facebook.”

The first aspect of this topic is the less personal: the concept of communal mourning of the largest scope, i.e. what happens on Facebook when a well-known person has died? One result involves regular people posting statuses and commenting on their feelings about this person dying, what this person has meant to them personally or what kind of a loss to the country or planet this death signifies. This seems to have been a common phenomenon since the advent of Facebook, as people often post links to interesting articles or info about celebrities, not just their death. I have observed it since joining Facebook around 2008. You hear about the death of a well known person in any aspect of life: the arts, politics, a religious figure, famous scientist, journalists, TV personalities, celebrities of all kinds, and notice your Facebook friends posting musings about this person, how s/he affected him or her personally, quotes from the person, references to articles or videos, etc. So with a very public death, Facebook serves as a place for people to comment on the famous person and his/her effect on their life, and also a place for easy access to a large variety of information about this person’s life and death. This is a significant aspect of Facebook and deaths of celebrities, that you can find all kinds of links to other websites/publications to access more information very quickly. I think people have not fully appreciated this aspect of Facebook. It also occurs on the anniversary of a celebrity’s death.

Since I first wrote this post, the big one has been the terrible tragedy of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s recent death. Another person whose relatively recent death resulted in a flurry of posts was Lou Reed. These are two good examples, as the kind of posts about their deaths is very different. Most of the ones about the recent death of Hoffman have been about how tragic it was and about heroin addiction and overdose, and what it means for a high profile very much loved and admired actor to die in such a terrible manner. There was shock at first about how he relapsed after so many years of recovery and then shock at the depth of his addiction and what was found in the apt. He died in, etc. Lou Reed’s death was fascinating for other reasons, as the loss of this public figure was elevated to the loss of an icon, which means he represented more than the sum of his creative acts and life on earth, but is a point of reference for a whole decade and generation and symbolized something more important than just his music and art — i.e. the era of Andy Warhol; with him, people are mourning not just a person and celebrating not just his music and talent, but something even bigger, how he fits into our culture as an icon, what he represents and represented in a much larger way than just his life and work… Facebook serves as a unique way for the intersection of the very personal emotional aspects of death and the phenomenon of the philosophical and cultural “legacy” left by someone that important to our “zeitgeist”… It also is a space then for nostalgia about the other loss, the loss of that time period and its particulars, such as the social, political and artistic realm of that particular “era”.

The other aspect of Facebook and death is the personal one, and there are different kinds of uses of Facebook in this category of loss. This can involve a dead persona who was active on Facebook or it could involve a Facebook friend’s using Facebook to mourn someone who was not on Facebook at all. One personal aspect of Facebook and death involving the mourner and not the dead person is the phenomenon of the anniversary of a death. Recently a Facebook friend posted a lot of photos of her father and family on the anniversary of her father’s death. It seemed likely her father was not a member of Facebook, but the important thing is that she was able to share with her friends some great photos and memories and also be able to share the loss on the anniversary in a way that people were not able to do before the existence of Facebook. It is also true for dead animal companions, the posting of photos on the anniversary of their death. I have seen a great eulogy written for a dead animal companion on Facebook, as well as people starting a Facebook “Page” or “group” about their animal.

One very odd aspect of death and Facebook is the actual discovery of someone’s death through Facebook, as we are used to finding this news out on the “news” itself, not second hand from a Facebook friend or Page. I think I have found out about celebrity’s deaths on Facebook itself, waking up to this news while looking on Facebook, before even reading or looking up news sites, where I would be likely to first see the news of someone’s death. On a personal level, the news of a peer’s or other connection’s death is sometimes first encountered on Facebook. Although it may seem too shocking to learn of your friend or family member’s death on Facebook, it serves as an immediate way to find out more information, both about the death itself and about arrangements for funeral and/or memorial service, and to be able to immediately communicate with others who share in this loss. I emphasize this aspect as it reveals an immediate therapeutic aspect of Facebook and death of a loved one. Through other’s posts on that deceased person’s own private page or through statuses of other mourners, there is instantly opportunity for dialogue and not being and feeling ALONE with the loss. One of the most healing aspects of the mourning process involves the ability to dialogue and communicate with others who share in this loss. There is much to be said for being able to share memories and nonverbal aspects of the person, such as photos, videos and songs, which Facbook allows immediate access for in a way that no other “social media” or other process can provide.

The Facebook personal page of the deceased and the Facebook Memorial Group or Page of the deceased: both are important as vehicles for communal mourning but in different ways. The article above describes the option people have of removing a dead person’s “Facebook profile” and presence or having the option of keeping it on Facebook for some very interesting reasons. Here are the options described verbatim from the Mashable article:

“• The profile remains untouched, unaccessed, unreported and therefore open to everyday wall posts, photo tags, status mentions and Facebook ads. In other words, business as usual.
• A family member or close friend may choose to report a death to Facebook. Upon receipt of proof of death, such as a death certificate or local obituary, Facebook will switch the dead user’s timeline to a “memorial page.”
• A close family member may petition Facebook to deactivate a dead user’s account.
• Users may gain access to a dead user’s profile in one of two ways: either through knowledge of the dead user’s password, a practice against Facebook’s terms of service, or through a court subpoena. However, per Facebook’s privacy policy and strict state law, courts rarely grant outside access to said social data. More on that later.
Facebook’s official policy for handling user deaths is the memorial page. In 2009, the social network began switching dead users’ profiles to memorial statuses, should the deceased user’s friends or family request the change.”

Interestingly, a lot of people do not choose to request a change in the dead Facebook User’s Profile from active to a Memorial Page. Not as a way to deny that the person is dead, but as a place to find actual real memories of posts that the dead person had written or posted. This can be especially meaningful to mourners if their dead loved one was very active on Facebook and also those who were not just active, but really used it as a direct form of self-expression. In addition, not mentioned in Mashable’s article, there are the Facebook Groups the dead person may have started and managed as well as any Public Facebook Pages this person may have maintained. A Facebook group has a number of privacy levels and kinds of access, but the point is that people who were actively involved in a Facebook Group with the diseased can continue posting particular posts relegated to that topic and to dialogue with the select people chosen by that dead person to be in that group. It’s like having 3 or more portals to mourning communally on Facebook. You can go directly to the dead person’s private Facebook page and look at old posts or new posts from other mourners. The interesting aspect of it being Facebook is that I have seen people address their post or comments to the lost love d one directly, which is a healing way to be able to “talk” to that person and get out what’s inside that you wished to have said or want to say. The other portal is the Facebook Group or Public Page of the dead person if they had a group they managed. Last of all is the possibility to create a special Memorial Page or Group for the loved one, whether or not s/he was a member of Facebook.

The Facebook Memorial Group is a very therapeutic and interesting phenomenon. It allows for a kind of constant memorial to occur and for people who cannot attend events like funerals/memorials who live far away to participate actively in the sharing of memories, feelings, and thoughts… Another great aspect of having a special Memorial Group for the dead person is that it can be created immediately to serve as a place to express shock and just feelings or other immediate things right away even before the formal ritual of a funeral/wake/service/memorial. It is also informational, a way to easily share info about such events so people can know quickly and make their plans in order to attend the particular event planned. In order to create a memorial group as opposed to a “Page” (which is more public), someone has to take the e initiative to be the one to create it, which just involves giving the group a name and picking the level of privacy of which there are three: Open, Closed, and Secret. If it’s open anyone who logs into Facebook can see everything about the group and who the members are. If it’s closed, it’s accessible in some ways, but only members of the group can view the “posts.” If it is Secret, there are further limits to access that make it much more private. For a fuller description, see this chart Facebook provides regarding groups of any kind:
https://www.facebook.com/help/220336891328465

Another important aspect of the Facebook Memorial Group is that it continues for no limit of time and people can be invited or ask to join at any point in time after the group was created. At various points in the years following the death, there are certain times when more people actively go to the group for solace and support, such as anniversary of the death or birthday of the lost loved one and other significant dates that people share as markers, such as a particular holiday the loved one especially loved etc.

In addition, this is also a way to be able to see the diseased and even hear his or her voice as people can post photos, videos and recordings. I think this aspect of it is really important as it can be very healing as part of the mourning process.

The other aspect of the phenomenon of the Memorial Group as well as the deceased continued presence through their profile and old posts and /or groups they participated in or managed, is that there is automatic allowance for the idea of mooning as having no expiration date. I think in a society where we are expected to “get over it” too quickly, this aspect of Facebook is very empowering for mourners who may not be able to “get over it” perhaps ever really, and are not required to completely…
This idea of loss is very beautifully expressed in the following quotation I found and actually posted on some memorial pages I am a member of:

Time does not heal, it makes a half-stitched scar
That can be broken and again you feel Grief as total as in its first hour.
-Elizabeth Jennings

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