Emerge Magazine 2017
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Photo by Mark Gomez/ EMERGE

Facebook Mourning: Memorializing the deceased online

She was a big social media person and she loved her Facebook, she loved her Instagram, the whole thing.”

This is what Dan Nicholson said of his daughter Brittaney and her online activity before she died last April. What was once her Facebook profile, where she tagged friends in funny posts, shared childhood photos and conveyed her love for Harry Potter, is now a memorial page. Friends of Brittaney say they remember sending her concert videos on Facebook and tagging her in funny statuses.

Following Brittaney’s death, her father said he wanted to close her personal profile, but the process proved to be more difficult than expected. “When we looked into closing her account… we were told [by Facebook] that we would have to email a copy of her death certificate and proof that one of us—her mom or I—were executor [person appointed to carry out a will] of her estate,” he says. “At the time we hadn’t received a copy of her death certificate and hadn’t been to a lawyer to be named executor… so Facebook ‘took’ control of it.”

Facebook developed a tool just two months before Brittaney’s death called the ‘legacy contact.’ According to Facebook, the legacy contact allows individuals to preemptively select a close family member or friend that can access their Facebook profile when they die. The legacy contact has access to many administrative features that others don’t, including updating the deceased’s profile picture and cover photo, responding to new friend requests and writing a pinned post.

Because Brittaney hadn’t activated this feature, none of her close friends or family members were able to access her account when she died. Nicholson says they have now decided to embrace the profile as a tool to keep Brittaney’s memory alive, in its truest form. “To be honest, I like it that way because that way no changes can be made and possibly start any problems in the family,” says Brittaney’s father.

Brittaney’s father and his sister have also created a separate Facebook group called ‘Memories of Brittaney,’ wherein they have full control over what is being shared and posted. The page is a forum for family and friends of Brittaney to post memories and celebrate her life. “It makes me feel better because I [can] keep her memory alive and honour her life,” her father says. “When I’m posting, I’m posting for her and there’s still a small part of me that likes to think that she’s reading this stuff.”

When I’m posting, I’m posting for her and there’s still a small part of me that likes to think that she’s reading this stuff.

Bidushi Dhungana had been Brittaney’s roommate for one year at the time of Brittaney’s death. She says they grew very close over the course of that year, taking multiple sociology courses together and engaging in discussions about human behaviour and politics. “We almost had an intellectual relationship, [one] that helped challenge me and hopefully challenged her as well.” She has posted a Halsey concert video on Brittaney’s Facebook wall in the past. “I feel like posting to her wall when I’m reminded of an experience that I think she would like or enjoy with me.”

“Everyone deals with grief and loss differently and for many reasons,” says grief counsellor and educator Andrea Kwan. Grief is usually experienced following a major loss. Death is a common form of loss, but Kwan says it could also include loss of employment or of a relationship.

After discussing Brittaney’s father’s memorial page with Kwan, the counsellor and educator says Facebook memorials are a healthy way to cope with grief. “I think he’s found a great way that works for him to honour his daughter and remember her, to keep her present in his life,” she says. “It’s a way to continue his relationship with her—a relationship of absence.”

Kwan says finding ways to engage with the grief, rather than avoiding it, will have a positive impact on a person’s life. But do Facebook memorials provide closure to those close to the deceased? Kwan’s answer is no. “I do think it could help you live with the loss. I don’t use that language like closure, because I don’t think it’s that simple,” she says.

Facebook has made it so that a person’s personal life can be immortalized online. But unfortunately, Facebook isn’t an official way to get over grief and there’s still a lot of work to be done. “I don’t have a checklist where I can say you do this, and this and you’re cured. I don’t believe that exists,” says Kwan. Facebook memorials are a great way to cope and connect with others, but an actual cure for those who grieve is still yet to be discovered.

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Alicia Phan

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A writer who drinks a lot of coffee. When she's not writing, you can find her at a restaurant taking pictures of her food.

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