Facebook: The Herald of Death, Driven by the well-meaning yet reckless.

What is it about the passing of a friend or family member that makes some people reach out on social media with abandon?

Such is the world where individuals can exercise the power of mass media. Facebook is a very effective way of disseminating information, which can very much be a good thing. Old friends can find each other, reunions and like-minded people can find each other, and friends who are halfway around the world can stay in touch. Those are good things.

That’s the kind of power can be put into the hands of anyone who has access to a computer or a smartphone, and as a result I believe many people need to exercise more caution when it comes to disseminating sensitive information, especially when it comes to the demise of friends and family.

In the past month I have had two friends pass away, and I learned about both of their passings from Facebook posts.

One was an old high school friend of mine, a dear and sweet woman who had moved away from the San Francisco Bay Area, where I still reside, to the East Coast. Another was a former coworker who was a good guy and friends to just about everyone he ever worked with.

In both cases I found out about their passing because of Facebook posts. In the case of my old high school friend, one of her friends, someone I don’t know, posted about her passing on her Facebook page. All that she said was that she had passed on. That’s it. Nothing about what happened or what the circumstances of her passing were.

The same thing happened with my former coworker, only a mutual friend of ours posted on his Facebook about this man’s demise. Again, there were no details. Only that he had died. Nothing about how he passed on or if there was going to be any kind of memorial.

Shortly after discovering about these friends passing on Facebook, I messaged the posters and various parties trying to find out what happened. Both of these people were awfully young to have met their end. They weren’t necessarily young, in their 40’s, but nevertheless it’s quite a shock to lose someone at that age. And in both cases no one could tell us how they had died, and no one had any information as to any planned memorials or funerals or wakes. Just a stone-cold “Hey, your friend is dead!” EOM.

Not that they put it that way. They framed their posts with heartfelt messages of sorrow and loss. But apparently they were not considering the after affects of their postings. Many friends of both of these people only learned of their passing through their Facebook posts.

Even now, about a month after learning these people had passed on, many of their friends have very little information about what happened, and no information about wakes or memorials. We’ve had no closure for their loss. I still do not know many details about either of my friends, even though they passed away last month.

This is hardly the first time I’ve found out about someone’s passing via Facebook. The urge to quickly eulogize someone seems to be strong with many Facebookers. Some years ago a friend of mine took his own life, and when some of his friends found out that he had died they started posting eulogies on his Facebook page, on the very day of his passing. His wife, still very recently widowed, was frantically messaging people to take down their posts about her husband’s passing since many of his close friends and family had not yet been informed, and she didn’t want the news of his passing to be spread out amongst the Facebook universe, at least not so soon after he had died.

Despite her frantic messaging, people kept posting eulogies on his Facebook. She finally gave up. It was too much work and she was not reaching enough people. The damage had been done. News of his demise had ripped through the Facebook feed.

It almost seems at times as if it’s a race, to see who can be the first one to express their sorrow. Occasionally some people wait, but many are apparently eager to express their heartfelt sadness. This phenomena was quite apparent for one incident that took place some years ago, in which I received a frantic text from a friend of mine who asked me to “tell me it isn’t true.” This was quickly followed by an anxious phone call from another friend, who reported that a mutual friend of ours had just passed away. When I asked had happened, they said it was all over Facebook. I opened my Facebook and I saw many posts about his passing. There it was, “Rest in peace Jason my brother!” (Not his real name.)

I messaged a few of these Facebook people, asking where they had found out that Jason had died. No one had any information whatsoever about his passing. Finally one of these Facebook eulogizers told me he had heard a rumor that he had been run over by an 18 wheeler, which made me suspicious.

I finally contacted Jason’s step father, who informed me that Jason was in the hospital because of a car accident. Far from being dead, he was being treated for some not minor but not particularly major injuries. And he was quite alive.

It turns out that one of his friends heard he had died in an accident, and when he heard about his alleged passing the first thing he did was log onto Facebook and express his grief. Then a bunch of his Facebook friends repeated the report of Jason’s departure from this world. And then all of their friends repeated his passing, making this erroneous death report go viral within Jason’s circle of friends.

When I found out that our deceased friend was in fact still very much alive, I quickly called my distressed friends to give them the real news and then toured Facebook, finding all of the eulogies and writing all-caps comments asking people to spread the word that Jason was, in fact, still alive and not actually dead.

It’s not as if I’ve never posted about the passing of a friend, but I’ve only done so when attending their memorial, or after they had been gone for at least a week, when most of their closest relations would have already found out through other means. (Or had already heard all about it through Facebook.)

To that end, shortly after the Jason incident, I wrote a quick Facebook post called “Rules for Facebook Epitaphs”, which I will repeat here:

– When discovering a friend, relative, or loved one has passed on, please consider whether or not the deceased’s close friends and family have been informed of said person’s passing before broadcasting it on Facebook. A Facebook post is not the best way to find out a loved one is gone when you were very close to that person. Let the news travel through more personal correspondence such as phone calls and face-to-face meetings before posting about someone’s passing.

– One of the first things people are going to want to know, when finding out a loved one or friend has passed on, is what happened? How did they die? Is there going to be a funeral or a memoiral? Unless that person was suffering from a terminal illness, (An open terminal illness, a friend of mine hid his condition when he had terminal lung cancer,) generally bad health, or advanced age, the first question people are going to ask is “What happened?” If you don’t have those details, perhaps you shouldn’t announce said person’s passing. It is amazing to me that so many people are willing to post open Facebook eulogies when they have no idea what happened to the recently deceased, that they would put it out there like that when they don’t have any answers for what happened or what’s going to happen next in the form of funerals, memorials, and wakes. If you don’t know the details, it’s best not to broadcast such a thing on social media.

– This is probably the most important rule, which I put here only because of the case with my friend Jason. When reporting the passing of a loved one on Facebook, it is imperative, and this is above all else the most important point, to make sure that the deceased person in question is actually deceased, and is not in fact, still alive! Erroneous reports of death have led to unneeded personal anguish and sorrow.

And, finally, (Let’s just get real about this,) telling your friends about a mutual friend or family member’s passing via Facebook is just a bad idea in the first place. Yeah, it’s convenient, and you want to demonstrate your righteous and dignified mourning to your Facebook friends list, but who wants to find out their old friend or former coworker or family member is no longer with us because they saw a post squeezed between a cat video and a petition link? Call. Email. Go over to their house and tell them face-to-face. Don’t Facebook an epitaph. At least not right away. Wait for a while until you’re sure everyone already knows through other means of communication. Then you can demonstrate your social media mourning.

Remember, when it comes to the passing of friends and family, you do not own the shock and sadness. Keep in mind your community when making these announcements, for everyone’s sake. This is one case where patience isn’t just a virtue, it’s essential, for everyone’s well being.

Author: termberkden

I am a writer, a software engineer, and a refugee from the punk/metal/new wave/my-God-what-did-we-do-last-night daze of 1980's and early 90's San Francisco scene. I write, I run, I actually stop and smell the roses, I meow back at cats, and I pet strange yet friendly dogs.

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