This was previously published on Bipolar Bear.
I saw it in my peripheral vision and had to look twice—but there it was, in my little Facebook ticker up the side of the screen.
A person whose name I didn’t recognise had commented on my dead friend’s wall, a friend I lost to suicide just before Christmas last year.
Surely it was some sort of mistake? I clicked on the link, and was transported through to his page … and there he was.
The profile photo had been altered, by his partner or family I guess, and his last job had been given an end date so it was now in the past tense, but for all intents and purposes, it was as if he were still alive.
The post I’d clicked through to was a birthday message, and there were screeds of others below it.
Not from friends, acquaintances and loved ones that weren’t aware he’d died—it was clear from their messages that they were. Apart from the happy birthday wishes, these were memorial messages.
I was stopped in my tracks, as the shock, emptiness and sickness of his loss came back to me. I can feel it rising again in my stomach now as I type these words.
Being in the office at the time, I mentioned to both my colleagues what had happened, and how ambivalent I felt about this: should someone’s personal Facebook page remain online after they have passed away?
Somehow, I had missed the notification of my friend’s birthday from Facebook (I’m terrible at remembering dates), which I put down to all the layout changes recently. But one of my colleagues had had the experience of receiving continued notifications about a friend’s “acitivity” after she’d died, and she said she had to unfriend her as it was not helping with her grief process.
My gut reaction initially was, this doesn’t feel right. But as I was talking these feelings aloud, I wondered whether this because it had dug up my own grief rather than a rational reaction to the idea of the page still existing.
I hate cemeteries. As much as I loved my grandfather, Snow, I have never visited his gravesite since the funeral. Nor have I visited the graves of any other relatives.
Why do I do this? I’d never really thought about it until now. It was just a repellent feeling that kept me away that I couldn’t explain. Dean in particular never has understood why I’ve never wanted to visit Snow’s grave, but he has come to accept it.
It’s not because of the reminder of mortality, I’m not especially afraid of death. Is it avoidance of grief? Perhaps, and maybe it’s avoidance of what I would term pointless grief—a headstone and a body in the ground just seems like a very odd way to remember someone. To steal a phrase from the title of a recent Skylight grief resource, “memories matter”. Those are all that exist of a person after they’re gone, and I don’t see how visiting a gravesite can evoke anything other than memories of their death rather than their life.
With those thoughts in mind, I started to rethink about what should happen to people’s Facebook pages after they die.
Why shouldn’t they remain as a living memorial, a place to share photos, remember their birthday, what they meant to you?
After further discussion in the office, we wondered whether—and perhaps this is something that may be part of Facebook’s new timeline feature—you can include someone’s date of passing in their profile, after which it becomes a “In Memory Of” page.
Why the semantics, you might ask.
I think it’s important for us to acknowledge that the person has left us. But that shouldn’t stop us from celebrating their memory.
And on reflection, I’d far rather visit an online memorial than a garden of buried remains. After all, as we move towards diarising more and more of our lives online through social media, it’s probably the closest thing we have to a genuine, organic footprint; a sign that a person has existed, lived, loved, touched our lives, and posed for stupid photographs.
I still miss my friend. And on reflection, I’m glad his page is still there.
—Photo credit: Justin Cascio