Death and Social Media

Social media’s made a lot of “normal” things weird. Death being a big one of them. This past Sunday, CBS Sunday Morning did a feature on what happens to your social media accounts when you die. Basically the answer is: it depends. If you have clearly spelled out wishes in your will and have told your family: whatever you wanted to happen to them will happen…BUT some states have laws that will give your family access to things even if you don’t want it. There are also companies out there now that will continue to post to your social media accounts after your death if you contract with them. Yeah, it’s weird and complicated.

But that’s not the only way death and social media are crazily confused.

Earlier this year, I lost a friend who died in childbirth along with her son. I was told via text message from a friend who told me not all the family knew yet, so please do not post to facebook, instagram, twitter what have you. However, not everyone who found out about her passing was advised. So her facebook wall blew up with condolences while some family sat in shock and other family members began publicly begging people to take down posts and even dispute them.

The people who posted their thoughts and prayers were not bad people and really didn’t do a bad thing. How were most of them supposed to know not all the family had been contacted? If it hadn’t been for the fact that she lived far from family so her husband reached out to local friends who were trying to shore up support for a man who’d lost his wife and son in a matter of hours, perhaps a tighter lid could have been put on it? But then again, maybe not. Her co-workers knew she had been rushed to the hospital and it’s hard not to be afraid and want to talk to each other.Even if she hadn’t taken part in social media, potentially it would have been the way some of her family had found out as there are still text messages, telephones, etc to spread the word.

Just this week, I was told that the father of a dear friend had passed. I went and looked at the man’s daughter’s facebook wall. Her messages were ambiguous. She said he had been moved from the hospital to hospice as per his wishes. She also mentioned that they were going to “say goodbye” to him. She thanked one of her brothers and his wife for their love and support “through all of this.” Finally in a comment on a post, I saw where she said he had slipped into a coma. But no updates for 8 hours after that comment. Messages to my friend and his sister’s page, not to mention his dad’s began to flood in with condolences and memories. Finally after almost nine hours of no updates, the sister posted her dad had in fact NOT died but was still in the coma. Death is imminent. This is a man in hospice in his 90s who is very, very sick and weak. I see nothing wrong with the people who offer prayers and share memories. Despite posts that he is fighting, his death more likely to come sooner rather than later. In my sadness, I dedicated my own posts to him but never mentioned death or RIP because I wasn’t positive one way or the other.

I don’t blame my friend’s sister for her somewhat vague posts. She’s going through about seven kinds of hell in her life right now and was supposed to be getting married this week (I’m assuming she put that off as it’s not been mentioned, understandably).  I also don’t blame the people who misinterpreted her messages. They were going off limited information and made a call on it.

What has been interesting is the angry, ugly way others close to the family have reacted. The family members have been gracious toward those who “got it wrong.” But I’ve seen several comments on posts in friends are screaming in all caps to “stop publishing false information” and one guy went particularly ballistic and suggested a poor woman be sued for libel by the family. Wow. I agree it might look tacky and might upset the family, but given the information made public, no one is out of line for offering condolences or prayers. And the family have issued updates and corrections, so I’m not exactly sure why these friends feel the need to confront well-meaning people.

Death is a fickle topic in our society. Some people accept it. Others don’t. And many, many are scared about it or angry. I think where social media is concerned, death is even more sticky. I waited until I had as much clarification as I could get before saying anything to anyone. Could what I said be interpreted as saying he died even though it doesn’t explicitly say that? Sure it could. His daughter never said that and over 1000 comments and posts later people think he did. Does that mean I’m a bad person or she is? No, it doesn’t. It just means social media is one of those things where no matter how hard you try to contain something, some things will not be contained. It  means no matter how clearly you feel you’ve expressed yourself or the situation, people don’t have tone of voice, inflection or body language to judge off of and can misinterpret things. Do we all probably have to get over ourselves a wee bit and not get so upset all the time. Um, yeah, that too.

As social media continues to grow and flourish, there will continue to be issues surrounding things like death, that although they happen in very real life, have to be dealt with in some ways virtually as well. My advice, ha, as if I have anything worth sharing that might be considered good advice, pray on it. Pray before you offer condolences. Pray before you post major life changes. Pray, pray, pray…because the real hereafter, well, prayer will lead you there.

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