Death in the Time of Facebook

About two weeks ago my college chaplain, a man who had greatly influenced my faith and life, and who helped set me on the track to seminary and ordination, suffered a serious stroke.

I found out on Facebook. Now, before you complain about modern technology, let me say I was grateful I found out that way. A college classmate who still lives nearby thought to message me on Facebook immediately. His note was rapidly followed by several others from friends who knew I’d want to know. I, in turn, passed the news on to others whom I knew.

It worked like that for several days. From New Hampshire I was able to feel connected to what was happening in the north Georgia mountains. I couldn’t fly down on such short notice due to events at church. But, a friend was able to kneel at his hospital bed and tell him I loved him and how much he meant to me.

I found out he died on Facebook too. A simple message: “he’s gone”. As the hours went on and more people learned their profile pictures were changed to ones of him. We shared story after story of what he had meant to us. We read and “liked” and commented. We held a virtual wake. We passed the funeral information to one another and made plans.

I’m not saying Facebook or any other form of social media is enough in the face of death. I am nearly a digital native but I still flew south for the service. I still needed to sit in a church pew, sing a hymn, and hug my friends. And, yes, I needed to stand at the side of his casket and see him there in his robe and stole. I needed to know at a deeper level that it was real; that he was gone.

I often hear social media criticized as counter to the goal of building community. My experience has mostly been the exact opposite. I live in a different geographic region from the one in which I grew up, and yet I remain friends with high school and college classmates. I serve in a profession where my colleagues are dispersed geographically, and yet a shared prayer or a request for advice is only a post away. And while I have written a book published on actual paper, it was online that I was first able to show I had relevant things to say. Barriers to the sharing of ideas fall over the Internet.

Like any tool, it can be misused. Most of us have heard a story of a death announced on Facebook before loved ones knew, for instance. But that’s an issue of etiquette, not an inherent flaw of social media.

Instead, I believe we are more connected when we use every tool that we can. The last two weeks have reminded me of that, and made me grateful for connections, however they come.

After the funeral a beautiful picture from the reception was posted online. Several dozen from four years were gathered together. We tagged ourselves. We re-shared it. We sent links to the web stream of the recorded service to those who couldn’t be there. And when we drove or flew home, we stayed connected in at least some small way.

I have one final act of mourning to perform before I move into the new phase of the process, in which the shock is gone and the reality that a love one is really dead sinks in. 

I have lists on Facebook, the kind that when necessary let me target my post to the audience most interested in it, mostly around my writing. It lets me separate the people who don’t care where my wife and I ate dinner from the ones who REALLY don’t care where my wife and I ate dinner. 

But I have one list that is about my own need to remember. I call it “Communion of Saints”. The first time a friend of mine died who was on Facebook I wondered what to do with his profile. It felt wrong to “unfriend” him. But somehow I had to mark the loss. 

That list has become a little like the candles we light on All Saints’ Day for me. It’s a constant reminder of lives well lived, and of God’s love from which “nothing, not even death, can separate us”. 

The list has 13 names on it right now. After I post this blog, I will type my old friend’s name into Facebook and navigate to his page. And then I’ll click a few boxes and add a 14th name to the list.

The irony is not lost on me that in our death-denying culture one of the most tangible acts of saying goodbye that I can perform takes place online. Nor is it lost on me that in a time of loss it was Facebook that helped me to mourn.

As a person who is mourning, I am grateful for that. As a pastor, I think that’s something worth reflecting upon.

5 thoughts on “Death in the Time of Facebook

  1. I will admit that I am generally one of the people crying that facebook is ruining our communities. We don’t know our neighbors and our posts on facebook are rarely full of information that anyone else cares about. When those posts are important, at least to us, they tend to be largely ignored.

    But, your experience, with the illness and subsequent death of your chaplain, is a good experience. In the days before facebook, you may not have found out so quickly and you certainly would have had a harder time chatting about memories.

    I’m so sorry for you loss. It sounds as though this man was well loved.

  2. Thank you for sharing, Emily, and peace to you.
    I love my Facebook connections. I try to follow one rule: only be friends with people online whom I would be friends with in real life. Your distinction between the inherent flaws of social media and our use of it is well stated. Best wishes to you!

  3. Once again Emily, you have “hit the nail on the head!” . In your grief you are helping others to see light. Thank you.

  4. Wonderfully said, Emily, and such a lovely tribute to your friend and colleague. Keeping you in thought and prayer and I am sorry for your loss…but so glad you have this on line connection to be able to share photos, memories, grief, loss and funny stories.

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