Facebook is changing the way we grieve

  • Article by: KATIE HUMPHREY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 17, 2013 - 9:53 AM

Pages sometimes evolve into memorials for the dead.

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The front page of the Facebook website.

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Death doesn't kill a digital footprint.

Rodrigo Sanchez-Chavarria knows that all too well. Since his friend William Brandon Lacy Campos, a poet and activist from the Twin Cities, died unexpectedly in November, he has watched Campos' Facebook page become a memorial guest book, where people post heartfelt tributes.

"It's really beautiful to see how many lives he's touched," said Sanchez-Chavarria, who continues to post to Campos' page. "At the same time, it's tough because you never get a message back."

By one estimate, more than 500,000 deceased Americans left behind Facebook profiles in 2012. Grieving family members might find comfort in sharing old stories on Facebook timelines, but it can be jarring to see photos of a dead friend reposted on Facebook months later.

"There's no 'I am dead' button," said Jed Brubaker, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California-Irvine who studies death and online social networks. In fact, Facebook profiles stay up until someone proves to the social network that the user has died. Often, no one does.

So "friends" might still see birthday notices for the deceased pop up in news feeds or even watch their "likes" appear alongside advertising.

While a funeral comes with expected traditions, grieving online is evolving. With more than 1 billion Facebook users worldwide, more people will be confronted with these lingering digital ghosts and nagged by questions about who controls our online legacies after death.

"There's a lot of anxiety and confusion," said Brubaker, "and some people are just downright upset."

Password estate planning

On sites such as Facebook, Flickr and Instagram, survivors have to tangle with legal and ethical questions about passwords and access if they want to shut down or alter a site.

That's why James Lamm, a Minneapolis attorney specializing in estate planning at Gray Plant Mooty, encourages people to discuss their digital lives -- backing up online files and coming up with a plan for passwords -- when planning for death.

"The traditional rules and traditional processes don't apply anymore," he said.

It's not easy, however, because each website, social network and e-mail provider has its own rules about making content available to an estate after death.

"There are not really good, clear answers on what to do," Lamm said.

Despite the confusion, online memorials can connect the grief-stricken to one another, said Jennifer Baker-Jones, a psychologist at the Center for Grief, Loss and Transition in St. Paul.

"A huge benefit of something like a Facebook page is people can talk about it," she said. "We don't always have a lot of places for that in our culture."

Campos' mom, Deborah Watt of Duluth, had never used Facebook before her son's death. She now visits his page daily.

"I have met so many wonderful people that have been supportive of him and now are a part of my life," Watt said. "We're helping each other."

Even small reminders can be comforting.

John Pollard of Cottage Grove likes seeing a link to the profile of his mom, Katie Pollard, who died from cancer last April at age 62.

"It's like having a picture on your mantel or seeing one of the blankets that she knitted her grandkids," he said. "It makes me feel good that we're linked."

In most cases, the traffic on the deceased's Facebook page slows down as time passes. And the network will deactivate a profile if requested by a family member.

But there are other options for dealing with death online.

Facebook gives people an option for preserving a user profile when someone dies. It's called a "memorialized" profile.

Functions removed

Approved friends can still post on a deceased user's timeline, but social functions are removed and the profiles don't show up in a public search. For example, a deceased person with an official memorial page (such as Campos') will not pop up as a friend suggestion.

Brubaker said memorializing hasn't caught on, in part because people aren't aware of the option. Also, it's not clear who should decide to change a profile to a memorial.

Navigating the personal and emotional boundaries isn't clear, either.

Bao Phi, a poet from Minneapolis, has mostly stayed away from posting on Campos' page, despite a decade of friendship and a deep sense of loss.

"The challenge for me was to try to step back a little bit," said Phi.

Normally, he's very active on Facebook. This time, though, he's decided to mourn offline.

"It becomes very confusing," Phi said. "It becomes public and private all mixed together."

Katie Humphrey • 612-673-4758

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