Life and Death on Facebook

The following was written by my dear friend, Courtney Seiter. I think she is being too hard on herself. I can safely speak for all her friends when I say she is one of the most sensitive and deeply “present” people I have ever known.

By Courtney Seiter

If you haven’t had a friend die in the age of Facebook yet, you will.

I’m sorry about that.

It changes things, the Facebook part.

First of all, unless you’re extraordinarily close to the person, chances are really good that Facebook is where you’ll first hear the bad news. That’s what happened to me a week ago.

It’s not unusual for a high school friend to break out the scanner and upload some (usually embarrassing) old photos to Facebook. But when I logged into my account to see this one, I noticed the photo I was tagged in – pictured with one of my high school best friends – was oddly reminiscent and written entirely in the past tense.

Only then did I see the message from another friend telling me to call anytime day or night – she had something to tell me about a dear friend of ours that she didn’t want me to hear about on Facebook. Too late.

The details of his accident, while heartbreaking, aren’t what I want to talk about here. It’s the other details that haunt. It’s the fact that I now have a living, digital record via Facebook messages of the number of times (three over three years) that he tried to initiate an outing together. It never succeeded because of schedules (mostly mine). It’s the fact that I know the exact last time I talked to him: two lines in June 2011.

Then there’s everyone else on Facebook who knew him. I can see exactly what they’re thinking and feeling, too. Because we’re all gathering at the same virtual wake – his Facebook wall, of course. Drowning out his everyday-life posts from just days ago, the wall now truly lives up to its name for the first time as it becomes a surface for us to scratch our memories onto: photos, songs, letters to him.

And here’s another thing you’ll need to know when this happens to you: looking at this wall is going to feel like looking into the windows of your neighbors’ house when they’re doing something private. Friends you know, friends you don’t, will post agonizingly personal messages here, filled with inside jokes and references and raw grief and Bible verses. They’ll talk directly to him as if he’s still regularly checking his Facebook account (and far be it from me to say he isn’t, I guess). They’ll use emoticons rendered even more meaningless than usual. You will, too, because what else is there to do?

You’ll want to look away, but you won’t. It’s a well of fresh grief, comfort and old memories you can keep going back to as often as you like – probably more often than is healthy.

And if you go back far enough, wade through all the outpouring and make it back to a time before everything changed, you reach…an eerie kind of normal. Posts about basketball, music, dinner, life. Like when a funeral procession on the highway gradually bleeds into regular old traffic again. You can’t stay here, though. Refresh. You’ll see that funeral details are posted on the wall, too. How did we do these things before Facebook?

Here’s where if you’re a social media marketer like I am, you might not be prepared for any of this. My world of social media is one of community at a distance – breezy, light conversations about what Google is up to or how to get your brand on Pinterest. Everything’s vetted, optimized, A/B tested. When the real world crashes in on a wave of tragedy, it’s a raw lesson in what Facebook is really for: connecting people, a messy business in life.

Facebook is about connecting people, but the people still have to do the rest. Spending as much time on Facebook as I do, I thought I was keeping up with my old friend. I “liked” his photos, I commented on his status once in a while. That was enough for me, but it shouldn’t have been. Now I’ve missed the chance to be his real friend again, and I’ll be reminded of it every time I check my Facebook messages.

Because living through Facebook, as it turns out, isn’t real living after all. Dying on Facebook, though, is all too real.


20 thoughts on “Life and Death on Facebook

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  8. Loved reading this. I have never seen a generation run so fast, so willingly, with such abandon to give up their privacy (in the name of friendships) especially in a nation that valued such a hard won right. Unless the Internet closes it’s doors life really does continue long past a last visit, comment or ‘like’. But right now I am putting names and faces together and loving the modern franchising that moves the outpouring of love and loss into something tangible. It’s great keeping (my nephew) Micah ever-present and hearing how you valued his friendship.

    • I really did, Mary, and I so appreciate your thoughtful comments. For all its flaws, the communal sense social networks bring can be really comforting in a time of loss. I am so glad it’s helping you see how well-loved Micah was by his many friends.

  9. I’ve found Facebook very comforting and occasionally have checked his page. I need to print all of the memories to show our son some day. I remember our breakfast together a few years ago. He was so excited to see you. Take care my friend, kelli

    • Kelli, I am thinking of you all the time these days. So glad you have such a strong support network (and a truly awesome family, from what I could tell Friday night). Take care of yourself and please let me know if there’s anything at all I can do.

  10. Courtney, how beautifully expressed. I’m sorry for your loss, but I thank you for taking the time and emotional energy to write this; it resonates deeply with me. I’ve lost a few friends and acquaintances in the Facebook era and more than a few prior to it, and the Facebook era does introduce dimensions that seem creepy and comforting at the same time. At times I’ve even wished that some of my pre-Facebook lost friends had Facebook walls where I could connect with other people who miss them. It seems like a greater loss not to have a way to memorialize them the way the friends who passed more recently are commemorated by friends and family each year on their birthdays and on the day they died.

  11. This was a well written and haunting laying out of the truth. I have a friend who posts on his fathers page almost everyday, it’s eerie but also tender. Though sometimes I feel like a voyeur listening in to a graveyard conversation

    • Eerie, tender, voyeuristic–that’s a really good way to sum it up. I felt all those emotions, too — and imagine I still will whenever his name shows up. A whole new world, Facebook brings us.

      • The most bizarre aspect is how it’s permeated all aspects of our lives to the point that a life without Facebook is now almost inconceivable.

  12. Oh Courtney. Having gone through a similar experience a few years ago, I truly empathize. My former sister-in-law passed away about 2 and a half years ago and her wall still is a place where friends and family gather on holidays, birthdays and the anniversary of her death. It’s painful and yet comforting having a virtual meeting place to share photos, memories and grief. It still shakes me up when I see her in my news feed or especially when it asks me to reconnect with her, but it’s also a way to keep her in mind and I’m sure it will be the same for you with Micah. Hang in there, darling.

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