Blog post #1 – How Social Media has changed the announcement of a death

A good friend of mine’s husband died this week in his sleep at the age of 43 of a massive heart attack. For this blog I decided to reflect on how communication around this terrible event differs from what it would have been 10 years ago and how social attitudes have changed.

This week, I was notified by a friend on Facebook that Khiem had died. I quickly went to his wife Brenda’s page and found 30 posts. By the end of the day friends and family had posted over 150 messages of condolences and personal thoughts and photos. It was heartbreaking to read the messages and see the beautiful family pictures. I was struck by how personal many of the messages to Brenda were. Although the sentiments were lovely, I was surprised by the very personal thoughts that people were expressing for everyone to read. Within about 6 hours of Khiem’s death I received another message from a friend letting me know that a fundraising page had been set up on YouCaring.com. I went to the page directly and saw that $7,500 had already been raised. The site allows individuals to donate immediately using their credit cards. It then offers the donor the ability to leave a personal message or donate anonymously. You also have the ability to make public the amount of money you donated. It was wonderfully surprising to see how much money had been raised in such a short period of time. Seeing the messages from other friends certainly inspired and pressured me to donate as well. I was however surprised to see that people were willing to publicize the amount of their donation.

Ten years ago, I would have been notified of a death by telephone. I would have then called some other friends and we would have consoled each other. Except for family and her closest friends, Brenda would not have received condolences until she saw people at Khiem’s wake and those messages would have been relatively private, heard only by the person in the line behind you. It is unlikely that any formal fundraising would have taken place.

So which way is better? In this situation I think it really only matters how my friend would feel. Receiving all of the messages of support must provide some comfort to her and would help to make her feel less alone and isolated. One week after Khiem’s death over $35,000 has been raised. This would give her a sense of relief that at least she doesn’t have to worry about money for the next few months while she gathers herself. The negative I see in this situation is the need for some to publicize their grieving in way that (in my opinion) is motivated by less than selfless acts. I was raised in an era when it wasn’t appropriate to bear your soul in public and it was seen in many ways as a sign of weakness. A stiff upper lip showed class and dignity. (I am only 48 by the way). Publicizing the amount of a donation would have been unheard-of. But times and social norms have changed. People’s ideas of what is appropriate public discourse have changed and will continue to do so. I think as with any change you get the good and the bad. In the past there were those would could express very little sentiment and now there are those who express too much. Hopefully in the future we will find a better balance. I think a little privacy is still a good thing.

8 thoughts on “Blog post #1 – How Social Media has changed the announcement of a death

  1. Hello CJ – Sorry for the loss in your circle. It is a subject I have some experience with in recent years. I find the way Facebook has changed the whole process of dying to be quite a phenomenon. It is, indeed something very private, that is now very very public. I have had friends who have passed whose Facebook sites still exist. People maintain the sites year round as an homage to those lost, I think of it as a Facebook netherworld. I find it very disconcerting as a concept, just like the type of outpouring of private messages, you write about.

  2. Hello CJames – I agree totally that Social Media has had a huge impact on how we inform others of a death in our various circles (friends, family, workers, acquaintances, etc.). I believe it is a very positive tool in helping grieving family members deal faster and more effectively in informing everyone of their loss and the funeral arrangements. Imagine how difficult it must have been in the past for grieving families to have to do so much work in trying to reach everyone under such difficult circumstances. I think that even though it is a great tool, we should use judgement on whether to reach out in a more personal way such as a phone call, note, visit, etc. Although social media is a tool let us not forget that face to face communication is also very important to those who are closer and who suffer a tragedy. I also lost my niece of 34 years old in a sudden heart attack in November 2014. Through social media the family was able to easily reach out to so many people that she knew in her activities, work, and friends from childhood to adult years.

  3. As long as people don’t use Facebook exclusively to comfort someone during a loss, I’m ok. If (god forbid) something happened to a friend or family member of mine, I would hope that those nearest to me took the time to call or visit me, rather than just relying on the simplicity and ease of Facebook to send their well wishes.

  4. Hi CJ, I completely understand where you are coming from. I believe grieving is a very personal thing, and condolences to the person/family should be given in person or at least over the phone if possible. I have a cousin whose facebook site is still up three years after her death and it has become a shrine or a memorial for her. But as we can all attest to, over sharing of all emotions, happiness, grief, excitement, this is what the future looks like. I work with a lot of young people, and they have no filter with anything happening in their lives. It is the norm and it has become acceptable.

  5. I have to admit, I’m more often than not horrified and disgusted by people who brazenly post news on their profile page about someones death before ensuring that the person’s family and friends have been properly notified. I do make the distinction between private messages in this case because – for many people (such as myself!) – Facebook might be the only way to reach me quickly. Moreover while Facebook memorial pages and the like might provide solace to grieving friends and family (particularly for younger generations), it could also harm people. Imagine losing a loved one and being constantly reminded of your loss sometimes for years on end. I think social media users need to be aware and cautious when dealing with death. Sure, it can be used for good but it’s a fine line between providing solace and causing pain.

  6. http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/facebook-legacy-contact-can-keep-your-profile-updated-after-you-die-1.2954595

    How do you feel about this idea? Someone being able to manage your Facebook account after you pass. They can use your personal profile page as a way to announce that you have died and when your memorial service will be, etc. As Rob said, I’d like to think if a friend of family member passed away, I would receive a personal phone call or visit, rather than a mass message from the deceased’s Facebook page. The fact that this “legacy contact” can continue to update your profile and accept new friends is just disturbing. It’s under their name, not yours, but I imagine it would still pop up in friends’ newsfeeds that you have an active profile and active posts.

  7. So sorry to hear of the loss of your friend. It is certainly shocking to learn of a young person dying unexpectedly like that. I have gone through my share of funerals but have not encountered the death notification phenomena on Facebook. So far, thankfully, the funerals I’ve been attending have been of the elderly. There certainly was no Facebook page attached.

    I am not a supporter of the emotional outpouring or fundraising. I believe that a lot of the personal touch that someone needs at the time of death is lost in typed words. Even though people are trying to reach out it is strangely impersonal. It’s too easy to type “I’m sorry” and move on with your own day like it didn’t happen. Where is the thought? Where is the home-made meal? Where is the hug? Where are the shared tears? At a time of death people need other people a real voice, a real face, a real touch, and a little effort. Not to sit alone in front of a computer staring at a 10 second typed “sorry, so sad” post. I think as social media develops we, as a society, need to have some basic rules of social etiquette.

    I also find the fundraising a little out of place. I think it is something people do when they want to do something & can’t think of anything else. If the person was in financial need, great! Otherwise, it also has a strange emptiness to it.

    Social media can be good to communicate the facts ie. funeral time & place, just not the emotions. But as was pointed out in lesson 1/2, we do not have control what other people post.

  8. Thanks for all of the replies everyone. It was very helpful to read your posts. It is nice to know I am not the only person who feels about this topic the way I do.

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