Typically narcissistic blogging.

Death and Social Media

Not too long ago, my Facebook feed was suddenly peppered with vague posts about the death of somebody who was part of a broader (but quite small) community of which I am a member. People refused to post the name of the person who died.

I was immediately filled with fear and anxiety that I was out of the loop on the death of somebody I might know and care about. It had happened to me with Sparkly (learned about her on Facebook, by accident), and I had been the person filling in people who were out of the loop on Donovan (learned he was in a coma when I was, without warning, added to a Facebook group to discuss it). And what I learned from both of those tragic events is that:

1. It totally sucks to learn these things via Facebook;
2. Learning these things via Facebook is inevitable;
3. Nobody, nobody should be out of the loop when somebody in a close-knit community is seriously injured, near death, or dead;
4. We need to take a serious look at how we handle tragedy on social media.

In the most recent circumstances, a small but very visible and active group within the larger grieving community seemed to think that not naming names would protect privacy, even as they posted details about his death that were far more invasive than his identity. This group was also inclined to criticize those asking for more information. When my very dear friend Rachel, who has lived through more brutal loss than the vast majority of the people I know, finally demanded that people name names, another friend commented, “If you are frustrated by not being in the in club over grieving with us, consider yourself lucky.”

Now, I understand that grief totally kills our communication skills. And this is why not a single one of us called him out on this comment. However, the essence of that comment should be addressed, because Rachel was not the only person who was essentially accused of being a vulture for asking.

I think we need to start with the assumption that nobody actually wants to be in that club. Nobody. If you really think somebody wants to be in that club, it’s time to do some unfriending and maybe look into a temporary restraining order. Okay? So let’s start with that foundational premise. Nobody wants to be in that club. If people are going to glom on for drama, that will become readily apparent, and they will not be anybody’s problem but their own.

I think we should continue with the general awareness that people die. I know, it’s something nobody really wants to think about, which makes all of these discussions about death much more difficult. Rachel’s response to the accusation of wanting to be in the mourner’s club nailed my reaction to this series of vaguebook posts: “Our community is very high risk, and I have lost more friends than I have digits to suicide, drugs, and motorcycle accidents. I found out in a million different ways. Because of this, fear strikes my heart EVERY TIME I hear ‘motorcycle casualty on the 880′ or any time [people] are posting about some unnamed tragedy.”

Marisa filled it out: “I’ve known too many quick-and-deads to ever, ever think that ‘if I knew them, I would know.’ I found out last week about a dear friend…via Facebook. But at least names were named. [...]Creating this kind of stress and anxiety in this incredibly high risk group is rude. It’s not telling anyone how to grieve; it’s asking for basic consideration.”

I’m not sure I know more than a tiny handful of people who have not been affected by tragedy and/or sudden death. Hell, just in case you think I am being insensitive, I have been struggling with depression and suicide ideation since I was a child. To top that off, I ride a motorcycle. In reality I–or any of us–could die any day. Every day. So many of my friends are similar: they suffer from extreme depression, are risk takers, get into accidents, and some of them have died. We are high-risk. With regard to the death of loved ones, I have not always been in the immediate loop. Nor would I expect even my closest friends to be in the event of my injury or death. Too many breaks in communication can happen. So assuming:

A. that everybody who should know does know is wrong.

B. that not naming names has no effect on those who didn’t know the individual is wrong.

C. that people who ask for the identity of the deceased are just social media vultures is—you guessed it—wrong.

I think we also need to think about how we handle information. Talking about a death in the community, not naming names, but offering other extremely private details is kinda like creating a really screwed up guessing game and it protects nobody’s privacy, ultimately.

For the record, when people understandably don’t want to guess, calling them vultures for asking for information is going to result in some ruffled feathers, especially when you have given just enough information to create the need to ask for more. You are hurting. I get it, and I have been there. I am so very, very sorry for your loss. But freaking out a bunch of your friends and then slapping them down when they ask for information is not the way to handle it. As my friend Normal pointed out in an analog example, “I don’t go to Lucky 13 and yell ‘one of us died and I feel sad!’ and then walk off to the bathroom without expecting a lot of follow-up upsetness.”

fat amyNorm gets a gif for that, because she nailed it.

We have all lost people. We are extremely aware of how truly fragile are the lives of our friends, family, and loved ones. And when somebody in a close-knit community feels the need to say that somebody who was a part of the community died, but not who it was, it does far more harm than good.

If you are going to withhold information out of respect to families and partners, consider withholding all of it and finding a more private forum for your initial response. In examples I have seen and heard of, some folks refused to name names publicly but explicitly offered to if contacted privately. It turns out I didn’t know the deceased, and I had the amazing and unfortunate privilege of getting to struggle with a feeling of intense relief even as I watched people I care about grieve.

I have read everything his friends have posted about him, and I have let those posts give substance to the person my friends have lost. This post is not about the fact that I don’t care; I do. This post is about the fact that people need to know, even if just to learn that their hearts won’t be breaking, this time. 

5 responses

  1. mschaos

    Thank you for this. we want to know, not so that we can turn it around to make it about ourselves, but so we can either reach out to our loved ones that remain and grieve together or breath a sigh of relief

    February 25, 2014 at 10:55 am

  2. It used to be that one of the friends or family members would make the rounds making phone calls. Voice to voice, letting people know that there had been a loss. They would create a web, reaching out to the other key members and asking them to spread the word. It was what you did. You made sure that everyone knew. It created human connection during a time of sadness and reinforced your place in the unit. Maybe my folks were unusual, but rural people, both north and south of the Mason-Dixon line did not want you to hear it from a stranger, which is what Facebook really is.

    February 25, 2014 at 11:07 am

  3. elusis

    That “not in the club” comment is incredibly smarmy, and the only reason I am not thinking “slap through the Internet” thoughts at the commenter is that loss makes you do and say unreasonable things. It smacks of the whole “cool kids” mentality that supposedly all of us “alternative types” were outsiders to in high school, and yet which everybody knows still goes on even though we’re all adults and weirdos. It turns someone else’s tragedy into the horrific equivalent of an inside joke – “you weren’t there; you wouldn’t get it.”

    The need for support in horrible circumstances is totally human and appropriate. The need for an AUDIENCE is something else entirely, and at risk of becoming an old man yelling at clouds, It’s one of my least favorite things about social media. And yet, I can have plenty of compassion for making questionable decisions in the shock of the moment, but attacking other people is not OK. Especially when the other people are trying to find out “did I lose someone too, and I just don’t know about it yet?” Talk about mis-directed anger.

    Anyway, you know how I felt about this at the time, and I’m 100% behind everything you wrote up there.

    February 25, 2014 at 12:25 pm

  4. The second I hear “did you hear who died?” I scour the social networks for info in a panic. It is terrifying not knowing. It is horrible when you lose someone you care about. It is even worse, wringing your hands, not knowing who it is.
    The person who would assume someone wanted to know was just some sort of attention seeker, I wonder about them. Unless they were in high school. I would expect that type of perspective from a child.

    February 25, 2014 at 2:54 pm

  5. Tanyamazon

    No one handles loss well, but we need do need to think about how we handle communicating awful news. We’re all getting older, this is only going to happen more often.

    The byword in all things death-related should be “compassion”, and hopefully we can all try to keep a bit laying around for the next time this shit happens… because you know it will. We will all handle it badly at points, we will all have to keep forgiving each other.

    That being said, the whole social-media-vaguebooking “[undisclosed] person is dead” thing.. is problematic for me as well.

    If I know the poster of that message, then I could know the person who died. Is it my friend too? Is it a total stranger? Am I about to be blasted in the face again by that icy crap-geyser of shock and pain, or has this one passed me by? Is it someone totally unrelated to your friends who read this, but you are feeling sad and just want to say that? Will asking you what is happening make things more painful? Do you need help? Am *I* about to need help? WTF is going on?

    We’ve all experienced more than our share of death already, every time it happens around us, it triggers crazies all over again. It really is selfish to fret about how an un-named death will affect us as individuals, but that’s how it is amongst us humans. We’re all survivors, all traumatized, and all scared of more loss. We cringe away from it, even as we *need* to know if it’s actually happened to us again.

    In the midst of overwhelming sads, folks may not realize what agony their partial info may be putting others through. Nor should they have to. There’s no reason the bereaved should give a shit what people farther out on the grief rings are feeling, or if they know anything at all. There’s no reason to involve social media until everyone is ready to deal with the response. Visit, call, text, chat, telegraph, scream.. whatever.. But when it goes on the friends list, it becomes the friends experience too.

    Once you’ve involved the internet.. well, you’ve involved the internet. With all the terror and the glory that comes with it. Grief and death should as private as those involved want it to be. If they don’t want to talk about it, or if they want to make sure specific people hear it before the FB nation does, then it makes good sense to keep it off the ding-danged tubes.

    February 25, 2014 at 6:56 pm

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