Dying in the age of Facebook


IL – Social media, especially Facebook, profoundly has changed the way we announce death and/or its imminence, the way we find out about loss, the way we mourn, the language we use to comfort the grieving and the status of those who do the comforting.

That profound change in the culture is beyond question. Whether this all is for the better is another issue entirely.

I have a personal and professional interest in death; strikingly often, the two collide.

The personal interest is that, like many people in, well, let’s call it the latter half of middle age, I am suddenly, constantly aware of mortality within and outside my own family. Many of my friends’ elderly parents have died; in one recent instance, revealed to me through Facebook, a former girlfriend of mine lost both within a matter of weeks. Some of my friends and family members have died this year, taken at a point when their professional lives seemed at their peaks and their personal lives brimmed with responsibility.

The professional end is that part of my job involves writing obituaries, which are, of course, news, albeit of the uniquely sensitive variety, and, for a journalist in these times, Facebook is a lot of things at once. It’s a crucial source of information; a competitor that plays by different rules; a necessary evil as a promotional tool; a mostly egalitarian gauge of how a community is feeling; and, well, something at which one sometimes stares in disbelief as heartbreaking news is disseminated to an iPhone or laptop, usually when one is on the bus, in an inane meeting at the office or in some other prosaic and inapt setting. The news comes with hundreds of rapid-fire reactions to the very same shock that one is experiencing in real time.

Prior to Mark Zuckerberg, one might have received a phone call with such news. Now news often arrives simultaneously with cries of anguish from a broad landscape of the previously informed. At times you feel like you have a new understanding of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.”

Over the last 12 months, the Chicago arts world has been hit with an especially cruel succession of deaths of some of its most significant artists. Marked by the youth of so many of those lost and the chilling number of accidents, this litany of loss has gone well beyond the usual rhythms of life and death. This surely coincidental pattern was not contained by 2014, as proved by the death of the beloved Chicago actress and movement teacher Julia Neary, from cancer and at the age of 50, in the very first days of 2015. Since so many of these deaths have been linked by a common artistic calling, and since Chicago arts professionals are famously noncompetitive and ensemble-minded, social media has played an unusually intense role. It has been a year of death and Facebook.

Death in the age of Facebook contains palpable advantages for the bereaved. Comfort from an array of caring souls is instantly available. One need no longer worry about disturbing a friend’s ongoing life just to say one misses a lost beloved or to seek out a friendly ear when the house feels lonely. If a friend is not available at that moment, someone else will be, and, if we’re being honest, comfort is usually more comforting when delivered in large numbers. When a life you cherished has been lost, you want a lot of people to notice. Announcing death by social media saves you the need to call countless friends and acquaintances, or the worry of someone finding out from someone else. The sad news goes out and in the reaction floods, often in great waves of startling affection.

If someone is still alive but, alas, dying, it now is possible for hundreds of people to express their love and admiration, post their memories, publish old photographs and generally offer what must surely be overwhelming comfort for someone at the end of their lives and wondering what impact they had on this tawdry world we share so briefly. This can be done without travel or visits that may be exhausting for the person in ill-health. Those of us who are still here can easily imagine spending our last days reading about ourselves in the words of those we love or whose lives we altered. It is, surely, a good way to go. I’ll take it.

But there is great strangeness, beginning with the question of whether or not a person who died would have wanted to be a cause celebre on Facebook (maybe, maybe not). But it hardly ends with the question of who has the right to say what about whom when. Because most peoples’ circle of friends on Facebook is far wider than their actual circle of friends, the medium tends to equalize the soul mate and the casual acquaintance, their responses afforded equal weight. “I loved you my whole life” lines up right below “although I never met you … ,” a disconnect that only increases with the prominence of the deceased or the early age of a death. If you know the grieving person well, it is easy to discern who is not a real friend merely by what they say, albeit with every good intention in the world. If there are many deaths in a common community, one starts to see the same names, offering comfort, opining, sharing. One wonders about that. Perhaps some just gravitate to the role.

There are few rules when it comes to the nature of the expression, and thus the kind of polite sympathy one might afford a professional colleague now collides uneasily with deeply intimate expressions of feeling. Facebook has ushered in a new casualness of expression, typified perhaps by the easy-to-click “like.” (Can one ever like a death or the news thereof? Or is one merely “liking” the person? Who knows what to do? Is even commenting in this format appropriate?) Today I read of a death described by one commenter as a “major bummer.” True, I suppose. No more of a major bummer in the history of human civilization than losing the one you love.

Moreover in this mysterious new age, these suddenly now are all written pronouncements, whereas mourning and comfort was for generations mostly an oral tradition, a one-to-one conversation, without permanent record. Not any more. It is now easy to become lost in these typed, raw, crowdsourced expressions of feeling, to stare at the computer in a half-light, reading hundreds of manifestations of sadness, lost in the mystery of how we are plucked from our family, friends and lives without regard to deserving.

Facebook is an instant publisher, so the agonies of the grieving moment, however injudicious or unsuitable for public consumption, are writ large with no editor for protection. It is all a million miles from, say, Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking,” a deeply personal distillation of grief, certainly, but one with at least the benefit of some droplet of chronological remove.

And yet, what did people do in the past? Bottle it up alone? Was that not worse?


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Originally published by the Chicago Tribune, author Chris Jones.