By Jana Riess
In the news last week I read a story about a mother whose college-age daughter had died, but the mother kept her Facebook profile alive and active so that friends and family could continue to post their memories. Months passed, and then someone took it upon himself or herself to alert Facebook that this young woman was, in fact, dead — a clear violation of Facebook’s stated policies. Citing privacy concerns, Facebook “memorialized” the page, and the young woman’s mother can no longer log in.
Apart from the obvious question (“Why is Facebook so concerned about the privacy of dead people when it is hell-bent to publicly chronicle every meal or random thought of the living?”), the story caused me to pause and reflect.
I too have a dead Facebook friend.
I won’t tell you his name, because I don’t want some tattletale to turn us all in to the Facebook Stasi. But I want to tell you how surprised I have been by the comfort my friend’s Facebook page has given me in the year and half since his death.
I have not posted anything on his Wall myself, but I do visit it periodically. More than I ever would have expected, in fact. It is tremendously comforting to know that his other friends are still thinking of him, still deeply saddened by his absence. I don’t know most of the people who post on his Wall, but I feel a kinship with them. I am no longer grieving alone, sitting in my house far away and looking through old yearbooks. Through Facebook, I’m part of a community of people who are also sitting in their houses far away and looking through old yearbooks.
Some of us have dreams about him, vividly described on the Wall. Others post when there is an anniversary or birthday. I think for all of us there is a sense of unfinished business, the kind that only comes with sudden death or death by suicide. Tragically, my friend’s was the latter, so there is an undercurrent of quest as we all gravitate toward his Facebook Wall in search of answers. Why did he leave us? And why didn’t we see it coming? What could/should we have done?
I hope Facebook changes its official policy and realizes that it has an opportunity here — not just a business opportunity, but the chance to be part of a great cloud of witnesses, a community of the living and the dead. We don’t want to merely leave flowers on the graves of our loved ones. We want them here with us, in our love and grief and loss. We want to tell them we love them, in the company of others who loved them too.