In 2015 Facebook announced a new policy that will let users leave a will, of sorts — instructions for what happens to their page after they die. The “digital afterlife” might seem like a trivial worry among all the arrangements to make for dying. It was only when I lost a good friend and saw the surreal way her presence lingered on the social media site that I realised how important such decisions could actually be.
We found out that Adrienne had died on Facebook. She'd passed in her dorm room, at the university where she’d just started grad school, and so her new classmates were the first to find out. As they began posting RIP messages on her Facebook wall, I was sitting in a lecture at my (different) grad school — fidgety, looking forward to the wine reception after. A friend texted telling me to look at Adrienne’s Facebook wall, where I found dozens of strangers leaving prayers and poems. At first it seemed like a joke — it was impossible that this was real, that this was how we were really going to find out the news.
Adrienne was the sort of person you heard surprising news about all the time. She was the kid who left college to go work at an investment bank in Ulaanbaatar; the girl who was hired to advise the government of Zambia when she was 22; our friend with stories about growing up across the hall from David Bowie. When it came to her, almost anything seemed possible, except that she’d die at age 27, just after posting a text conversation about panda emoji on her Facebook wall — panda emoji, followed by a string of heartfelt and heart-rending posts from friends and family expressing shock, outrage, and sorrow.
If her death was hard to fathom, Facebook made it feel unreal. She was a friend I’d loved, but someone I’d had fallen out of daily contact with, and so her absence was abstract. Her presence all over social media, however, made her feel more alive than ever.
My wall was inundated with a stream of new photos in which Adrienne was tagged, new comments, Facebook informing me that this outpouring of grief had been liked by dozens of our mutual friends (and dozens of complete strangers). My pictures with Adrienne popped up again, resurrected by people using Facebook to relive their memories: the photo from the first time I ate curried goat; the video from the first night of college when we stayed up until sunrise, just to see what it looked like from a Manhattan rooftop; a group of young laughing kids, running wet-haired through the night after sneaking into a swimming pool.
Along with all the happy memories, Facebook surfaced regrets. In the days that followed her death, I kept looking at the invitation for Adrienne’s last party — one I didn’t attend. That invitation made plain how much I took this easy communication for granted. I was more connected to my friends than ever, but I could decline to see them without so much as a word, only to have them die less than a month later.
There were darkly comedic moments, too, none more so than when Adrienne invited me to her own funeral. Her family, likely more grief-stricken than I could even comprehend, had gotten access to her account and used it to contact her friends in the most efficient way they could imagine: through posting on her wall, creating event pages for her various memorials, and sharing pictures they thought we would want to see. There was no doubt this was smart logistically, and as well-intentioned as everything they did in the wake of her death. Nonetheless, the push notification from beyond the grave was an eerie and yet morbidly hilarious moment in the midst of the grief. No doubt, exactly the kind of macabre humour Adrienne would have loved.
After several weeks of experiencing her death through the strange glow of a living Facebook page, the day of her memorial came — and it all became suddenly, sickeningly real. Her death, initially represented by heart emoji and song lyrics, turned into an actual ceremony at an actual place, with puffy-eyed relatives, giant bouquets, and choked-up eulogies. I realised that this crew of college friends, despite our endless streams of online communication, hadn’t actually all gathered like this in years. After, we walked the familiar path from campus to Adrienne's mother’s house, where we had thrown legendary parties before any of us could legally drink. We sat together on the same couches where we’d slumped freshman year, with Adrienne, then clutching 40s and bragging about our new facial piercings.
But now, nearly 10 years later, Adrienne was dead. Our ironic sweatshirts had been replaced by awkward suits and business-casual dresses. As the party petered out, grandparents disappearing off to bed, we ended up alone, sitting quietly, eating funeral food — the classical music becoming oddly loud as the crowd dispersed. We were the same crew, on the same couches, minus one.
Maybe if she’d died a year later Adrienne would have had everything in place to get her Facebook profile quickly and easily converted into a “memorial page” — without relying on her grieving parents to figure it out. But that night, as the conversation lulled, our friends pulled out their phones to dive back into Facebook, and the comfort in mulling over its photos. I could imagine Adrienne laughing ("You’re looking at Facebook at my funeral?"), but also, I felt a little grateful for the strange, grey space where, for a least a little longer, she seemed alive.