How Facebook almost Broke Really Bad News: Technology’s Unintended Side-Effects

I learned about my father-in-law’s death through a text message.  He died while I flew to Los Angeles, my husband presented at a conference in New Orleans and my kids studied in school. Yes, go ahead and heap judgment all over us—believe me—we already have.  My worst nightmare happened, that both parents were out of town when my father-in-law passed.

When the wheels hit the tarmac, I texted my husband “Landed.”  A second later, a note popped up that he’d left a voicemail.   A bad harbinger.  A second later, a friend’s text came, “So sorry to hear about your father-in-law :(”

A minute later, Scott texted the news.  Ironically, while texts flew through the air, it took forever to retrieve the voicemail. When I finally heard it, he asked me to tell the kids and I wondered:  Is it better to hear bad news over a phone or to hear it in person from someone who’s not your parent? Is it better to tell each kid ASAP or wait until they’re all home after track, play practice and piano?

Scott eventually decided to tell the kids himself, but considered waiting until he arrived home the next day (he couldn’t get a flight out earlier).  But because he’d written a friend who told his wife (my texting friend) who’s related to a friend across the street, whose kids are my kids’ friends, there was high chance the kids in the neighborhood would give our kids the news if we didn’t.

I texted my friend across the street, asking her to ask her kids not to tell my kids.

All turned out fine.  Scott caught the kids after their afternoon activities but before piano when they were all home.  One kid did say, “Were we the last to know?”

We later realized a family member had posted Pop’s death on Facebook.  Both girls had checked Facebook before the phone call, but missed seeing the post.  Only chance (or Providence) kept them from  learning about their grandfather’s death online.

In the old days, breaking news about deaths, accidents or murders always came with the “name is being withheld while the family is notified.”  Nowadays, it turns out that’s a really hard thing to do.

Despite how Scott calls me a Luddite, I enjoy social networking and the benefits of the information age. But I continually worry that texting and Facebook chats and Twittering substitute for the hard work of authentic relationships, and that we’re seriously hampering our children from learning the real social skills that will provide them with life-long friendships, healthy marriages and satisfying careers.

I just heard a story on NPR about a dying woman who found comfort in a robot programmed to “listen” and “care” for her. Now R2D2 may be my favorite Star Wars character, but it feels creepy that even if she felt loved and cared for,  in reality, there was no one there–and therefore no real love or care being offered.

As we’ve talked with the kids, one says she preferred hear bad news over the phone because it made it less sad.  She didn’t get to see her parents cry sloppy tears or express grief in the moment–deep feelings that would have been scary and overwhelming.

But that’s exactly why I wish we had been there to break the news.  Because if we can’t cry sloppy tears and comfort one another when we lose our patriarch, when else will we feel real emotions and be truly human?


  • http://www.peacebang.com Victoria Weinstein

    I can certainly see how families getting news of a death via Facebook would be traumatic. But when the author writes, “I continually worry that texting and Facebook chats and Twittering substitute for the hard work of authentic relationships, and that we’re seriously hampering our children from learning the real social skills that will provide them with life-long friendships, healthy marriages and satisfying careers,” it feels like a serious over-reaction to an upsetting event. Monitoring and managing social media is part of parenting in the new era. There’s no need to react with such broad, irrational fears when social media achieves its ends (instant communication) in a way that has unfortunate results. It is still possible to share authentic emotions of grief and loss even in the aftermath of awkward notification. When the telephone was new, people no doubt felt that getting notification of a death by phone was equally impersonal and problematic. Social media can help or hinder authentic relationship. Handwringing about new technologies that are changing the world is not productive.

    • Kathy Tuan-Maclean

      Thanks Victoria for your comment. You say exactly what my husband says. I have other thoughts, which I’ll probably write more (and have written about before) in other posts!


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