My husband found out about his friend Louise’s sudden death on Facebook. Her brother posted the news on her timeline. It was right above a video of Koko the gorilla playing the guitar. “Wow! Love this!” Louise had written a few days earlier, in what would turn out to be her final Facebook message to the world. I first met Louise eight years ago, when my husband and I started dating. They’d known each other for years. She was a few years older, and she clearly adored him, but not in an “I’m secretly in love with him” way. She was kind to me, and genuine, and funny, and smart. She friended me on Facebook, liking photos I posted of our cats and articles I’d written. We kept in touch sporadically, the way you do when you live in different cities and don’t see each other often. And then, one morning a few weeks ago, my husband looked up from his laptop and turned to me. “Oh my God,” he said. “Louise is dead.” It was impossible to comprehend that she was suddenly gone. Even more so when I went to her Facebook page, where she was still very much alive. Her digital footprint was fresh and active. Her recent posts and Likes made it feel like she was still with us. Her death was unexpected. She died alone in her apartment; her body was found days later. I wanted to call her, message her to see if it was really true. Death, especially the sudden death of a young person, is tragic, incomprehensible, and senseless. The remaining digital presence of the deceased can make it even more so. I was stuck in denial — the first of the five stages of grief proposed by Swiss psychologist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (the stages that follow, according to her model, are anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance). But Kübler-Ross, who died in 2004, probably could not have predicted the social media phases of death — sad face, R.I.P. timeline post, goodbye message. And how today, when someone is gone, digitally, they still remain. And that was fucking up the way I was processing Louise’s death.
Her Facebook page quickly transformed into a memorial wall. Most of the messages addressed her directly. “I just found out about your passing!” One friend posted, as if Louise were just away on a trip, but still periodically checking Facebook. “May you rest in peace!” “I still have that book you gave me with that beautiful note,” another friend wrote. “I will miss you and your wicked sense of humor!” Personally, I have enough trouble comprehending my own mortality without worrying if I will have to maintain Facebook in the afterlife. Of course, these messages “to” Louise are really directed in some way to her family, friends, and loved ones. It's about the survivors. Facebook profile pages can become virtual gathering places for people to share stories, information, and mourn. Social media makes communication fast and easy. But grief is complicated; social media is not. “Social media can confuse our process of grief,” Los Angeles-based mortician Caitlin Doughty says. “I’ve had friends die of cancer, suicide, accidents, but their profiles don’t grow old, don’t decay, don’t die. That can be deceptive.” Doughty hosts the popular Ask a Mortician YouTube series and co-runs the funeral home Undertaking L.A. Grief and death are her business. “There is no more profound human experience than that of true, unfettered grief,” says Doughty. “Sitting with the dead body of someone you love can take you on a journey of despair, existential angst, and finally acceptance, that no Facebook status can provide. The body itself unlocks the grieving process.”
Social media makes communication fast and easy. But grief is complicated; social media is not.
My first real, up-close experience with death was as an adult, sitting at the deathbed of one of my closest friends, Joe. I’d known him since high school, and he was the silliest, wisest, cleverest person I knew. At just 36, he was dying of a rare pulmonary cancer. For one week, alongside his family and other loved ones, I stayed with him in hospice, held his hand as he dozed in and out of morphine sleep. I listened to his labored, rattling breathing, slow and pained, wondering with each breath if it would be his last. Until finally, it was. Moments after his death, Joe's father coaxed me back into the room. “Come see Joey,” he said, gently putting his hand on my back, “He looks so peaceful.” My feet wouldn’t move forward. I couldn’t make them. When I finally did, I sat on the edge of the bed next to his body, tentatively. I touched his arm, which was still warm. I put my hand on his chest. His dad quietly left the room. And then I howled. I don’t know where in me the sound came from, but I howled. I bawled, I lay my body half on top of his like an Italian widow in the movies, and I wept. When I was entirely empty of tears, I got up and went back out to the hall to be with the living. We can’t have these visceral experiences with every death in our lives. But perhaps this is why experiencing Louise’s death online has left me feeling so empty and unsatisfied. Facebook allows users to change a profile page to a memorial page, but often people just leave the profile up. My grandmother died in July, and her page is still active. A whole string of birthday messages is still on her timeline. In a great piece on what she calls “Stifled Grief,” Michelle Steinke writes about the expectations we often have around grieving and when it is supposed to end. “There is no moving on,” she writes, “there is only moving forward...Grief is an ugly mess full of pitfalls, missteps, sinking, and swimming.” In the real world, finding tools to manage grief feels impossible enough. On Facebook, the oversimplification of the trauma of grief itself felt, to me, unbearable. “I feel like I’ve been punched in the heart,” my husband emailed me from work later in the day after we found out about Louise. The disbelief and sadness wash over slowly and at unpredictable moments. Louise and I are still Facebook friends. In a few months, Facebook will remind me to wish her a happy birthday. I still visit her page; I reread messages from her. I am learning a new way to grieve. Maybe there is comfort that she’s still there, that friends continue to post on her page about how special she was and how much they will miss her. I will miss her too. I look at my own Facebook posts — a photo of my husband on the summit of Mt. Whitney, that amazing new Sia video, pictures of my cats. All of us will die (spoiler alert), and that is terrifying and incomprehensible. But we will still live on, on Facebook.
Welcome to Death Week. This week, we'll attempt to unpack our feelings, fears, and hang-ups about death, dying, and mourning. We’ll do our best to leave no gravestone unturned.