Over the years, the Facebook community has grown exponentially, and, as life runs its course on all of us, people keep dying. More and more posthumous profiles continue to haunt cyberspace. Whether it’s creepy or comforting, we are the first generation to ever have to deal with it.
Twenty-four-year-old Alex Walker lives in Halifax, but grew up in Cape Breton. She was dealt a painful blow last winter when she learned her ex-boyfriend, Vince Keating, had passed away. Seeing his lingering Facebook profile prolonged the pain, so she made the difficult choice to do something she can now never undo—Walker unfriended Keating. “I actually ended up deleting ‘the profile’ from my friends list,” she tells me. “I can’t say ‘Vince’s profile’ because Vince is no longer here. I want to remember him in my own way and I can more easily do that without ‘the profile’ always lingering.”
Seeing his user-less account was a perpetual reminder that there was nobody on the other end. “And, depending on the day, it could make the hole he left feel even bigger.”
Whether it’s creepy or comforting, we are the first generation to ever have to deal with it.
Up until last month, Facebook’s “death protocol” required “an immediate family member or executor” to provide a birth certificate, death certificate or “proof of authority under local law that you are the lawful representative of the deceased person” if you wanted to have a profile taken down, or, alternatively, turned into a memorial page. However, now, before you die, you can also designate a “legacy contact” to manage your account once you pass away.
Walker does frequent a memorial page that’s been set up in Keating’s honour, but she has mixed feelings on his old account, and whether or not it should be deactivated. “I’ve had friends pass prior to Vince and their profiles just sit in limbo. Eventually, they don’t even have a profile picture anymore. On Vince’s birthday I can’t think of anything less comforting than receiving a notification with a grey faceless image reminding me that he won’t have more birthdays.”
In her experience, Keating’s lasting profile impeded the closure process. For others, keeping a Facebook account around has helped.
Carla Seymour is a registered psychologist in Halifax. She says many, if not all of her clients, find the posthumous presence very comforting.
“I sort of liken it to a virtual memory box,” she says. “I think, within reason, it’s very healthy. Think of everything we’ve realized in western society; we try too quickly to package up the dead and deceased—sort of, out of sight out of mind—and the research shows that maintaining the Internet connection is actually very healthy for the grieving process.”
Sarah Poirier, 27, was blindsided by the deaths of her two close friends following a party in her Pictou hometown last August. In her experience, the surviving online presence of her friends has created an avenue for closure. “Without Facebook, it would have been so much harder for everyone to share so many photos and memories,” she says. “You have a community at your fingertips instead of feeling isolated and lonely.”
But that’s not to say it doesn’t come without its challenges. Poirier says late last year, like Walker, she fell victim to one of Facebook’s painful reminders. It can be “a little weird to see both their profiles. Especially when Cameron’s birthday came around in November. Getting a notification to wish him a happy birthday is pretty sad.”
As heartbreaking as they may be, Poirier and Walker’s experiences are far from unique. If you take the population of the number of monthly active users on Facebook (about 1.3 billion in 2014), and take the crude death rate for the entire globe (measured at 7.89 people per 1,000 in 2014), and say half of the profiles of those who died were deleted, there are over 5.1 million accounts of the deceased still in existence. That’s about the population of British Columbia and Newfoundland and Labrador combined.
Though Seymour had noted that the role Facebook played in the majority of her grief counselling was positive, she adds that it also depends where the person is in their bereavement process. “We also have to keep in mind everybody grieves in different ways,” she says. “There are many people who would find the idea of a memorialized Facebook page distasteful.” She compares it to the specificity of an open-casket funeral. Some people would prefer that, while others wouldn’t. “Some people say to me, ‘I know that profile is there, and I’m not ready to look at it, but I know down the road in a year or two, that’s going to bring me a lot of comfort; a lot of humour,’” she says. It’s “sort of keeping peoples’ memories alive.”
The entire process isn’t far off from standard grieving practices that have existed for centuries, but rather just a new direction in the ebb and flow of time. “If you stop and think about people who are grieving outside of the digital world, they will often honour the birthday of a deceased family member by going to the grave,” says Seymour, “by going to the ocean and writing a letter, or by going to the cemetery and saying a prayer. So I don’t know that it’s a lot different other than it’s a sign of our digital times.”
Seven years ago—before I’d been living in Halifax—a guy I went to high school with died suddenly one morning while eating breakfast at his home in our southwestern Ontario town.
He was older than me. He was captain of the Windsor Spitfires and his name was Mickey Renaud. His untimely and tragic death happened not long after Facebook was just revving up to become the omnipotent social media monster it is today. Though I wasn’t close with him, I remember being fascinated that his presence was still being felt out in cyberspace days, weeks and even years after he’d passed. People would still write on his wall, friends would still tag him in photos and every post he made up until February 2008 still sat there on his page, like a tragic time capsule of the weeks he didn’t know would be his last.
Whether it’s preferred or disliked, painful or peaceful—the lingering social media accounts of the dead are just another one of the many technological nuances our generation is left to test-drive. Like it or not, you’re going to have to come to terms with the fact that there’s an entire intangible mausoleum out there where Facebook carries millions of burnt-out stars in a calculated clutch—piling up friend suggestions and sending out reminders for birthdays that will never be had.