Happy Birthday to You. Happy Birthday Dear (your name). Happy Birthday to You. Keep singing in your head and now pretend that you are dead for a moment. How old are you? How old are you? Even though you have died, don’t worry, social media will keep celebrating with your friends and family.
If you are on Facebook, it’s likely that you have been notified about an upcoming birthday from a dead friend. Unfortunately, I’ve received too many of these lately.
It was only about five or six years ago that a newborn’s first footprints were recorded in ink at the hospital; today our first footprints are recorded in digital. As soon as babies take their first breaths and from cradle to grave an entire life of milestones will be shared on social media, which is a ton of fun, but what happens when it ends?
My wife Stacey and I hope we don’t leave too many unanswered questions for our family when we die and recently formalized an Advanced Directive, a legal document that expresses our end of life health care wishes. After we completed the paperwork I thought about a few more loose ends: event notices from Facebook, my legacy on social media sites and the ability for others to say nasty things about me after I’m gone like, “He thought he was so funny. We only laughed at Ron because we felt sorry for him.”
My concerns may be exaggerated but I believe there is a better balance between blowing out virtual candles for dead people and all the good that social media does to promote health and unite us in illness and death.
During hospital stays, the password-protected sites CarePages and CaringBridge serve as therapeutic conduits to update family and friends on posts that range from a happy birth announcement to a terminal illness. On another social media platform NPR reporter Scott Simon shared his love for his dying mother on Twitter.
Mother groans w/ pleasure–over flossing. “When they mention great little things in life, they usually forget flossing.” — Scott Simon (@nprscottsimon) July 28, 2013
Paul Bisceglio featured the well-known Simon in a poignant article in the Atlantic, How Social Media is Changing The Way We Approach Death. He spoke with people who believe that social media may distract the caregiver from the patient, but mostly how social media can lend a compassionate hand. Even though his mom passed, Simon’s tweets still resonate.
@nprscottsimon My father died a year ago yesterday. Your tweets, compassion, humor and humanity helped the passing immensely. Thank you.
— Robert Falls (@RobertFalls) July 29, 2014
As sentimental as the Scott Simon account was, Laurie Penny, contributing editor @Newstatesman wrote Selfies at Funerals and memorial hashtags: mourning in the digital age , “In recent weeks and months, social media has been unremittingly macabre….. Most recently, 25-year-old journalist and socialite Peaches Geldof was found dead in her home and…. everyone from Boy George to the Irish prime minister tweeted their condolences…..”
Stephanie Buck from Mashable published, How 1 Billion People Are Coping With Death and Facebook, and concludes that as of 2012, 30 million people who maintained Facebook accounts have died. She freaked me out a little and inspired me to dig a little more on my own. Here is where you begin on Facebook and this is what you’ll see if you want to remove a deceased friend or family member.
On Twitter, the company’s policy asks that a representative acting on behalf of the estate or a verified family member manage this process. The most helpful site I found is dedicated to grieving and dealing with death, Modern Loss. It posted this comprehensive listing with instructions required by Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Instagram and other social media platforms.
These decisions are very personal and there is no right answer and your position may evolve like mine has. I’ve moved toward acceptance because social media’s influence will continue to flourish with most of it for the greater good. When I saw the respectful comments on my deceased friend’s Facebook wall recently, I mustered the courage to write a condolence and took it a step further to pay my respects digitally on the funeral home’s community web site.
When you die you’ll definitely leave some sort of digital footprint, but how big do you want it to be and how much hassle do you want your family to endure? I’m still leaning toward sharing my passwords with my survivors so they don’t have to file a bunch of requests and hopefully remember more of the real me rather than the digital me.
The opinions expressed in this blog are my own. My Twitter handle is Ronald Petrovich