Imagine, for a minute, that you are in a hospital bed, recovering from surgery earlier in the day. Someone hands you your cellphone and you groggily check your Facebook feed, only to find a stream of messages from friends offering their condolences.
This is how you learn your mother has died.
“The family wanted to wait until after the surgery to tell him,” Jim Fernald, a partner at the Brookings-Smith Funeral Home in Bangor, explained, describing the experience of an acquaintance. The mother’s death had not been unexpected, and siblings didn’t want the news to upset their brother or derail his scheduled surgical procedure.
But someone told someone else, who posted it on Facebook. It didn’t take long for mutual friends to reach out with their condolences to the unsuspecting patient in his post-op bed. Their intentions were good, Fernald said, but it was a tough way to learn what had happened.
“People jump the gun posting news of a loved one’s death on social media,” Fernald, who also serves on the board of New Hope Hospice, said. “They mean well, but it does create issues.”
In addition to the shock of receiving such intimate news in such an impersonal way, he said, loved ones understandably feel betrayed at not having been informed of the death of a loved one before the news gets out to the general public.
Facebook, the social media of baby boomers
While teens and younger adults are trending to SnapChat, Instagram and other social platforms for sharing photos, news and other communications, Facebook remains the medium of choice for older Americans. Among American baby boomers — born between 1946 and 1964 — about 82 percent are active on Facebook, according to a 2015 survey by the digital marketing site DMN3.
“Facebook is increasingly the venue for older generations,” Jon Ippolito, a professor of new media at the University of Maine, said. But while younger adults who have grown up with social media more intuitively grasp the subtleties of online privacy, discretion and etiquette, he said, older users sometimes fail to observe basic guidelines when it comes to posting personal information.
“Posting on Facebook is like having a billboard in your backyard,” he said. “You may think it’s private, but it’s not.” Even the assumption that only designated “friends” will see what is posted on your timeline can be false, because Facebook’s privacy policies are complicated and change frequently.
Citing common sense and courtesy, Ippolito reviewed some basic rules for dealing with death and other deeply personal news online.
First and foremost, when it comes to spreading the news about a death, it’s important to defer to what is sometimes referred to as the “hierarchy of grief.” That means allowing the next of kin to take the lead in how and when the death is announced. Only when someone very close to the deceased person and the immediate family posts the news or a link to a formal obituary should others assume it’s OK to share the information on their own Facebook timelines.
People should also respect that the next of kin has the right to control how much information is released about the death. For example, in the event of a suicide, the details may be too sad or too traumatic to share. In some families, a decision to withdraw life support is sensitive or controversial. And if a death is suspicious, the circumstances may be subject to an investigation. In any event, Facebook is not the place to break a story, gossip or show off how much you know about the death.
In other words, unless you are the immediate next of kin, Ippolito said, “it’s not about you.”
When it comes to expressing your condolences, it’s OK to use Facebook if you’re sure the person you’re reaching out to already knows and won’t be blindsided by your message. Think back to the post-op patient, and if you’re not certain, wait.
General courtesy dictates that if someone delivered the news of a death to you in a private note, a telephone message or even a text, your response should be likewise private and not posted on anyone’s public Facebook timeline.
Keep detailed conversations, questions and family news about the death or funeral plans offline. Ippolito suggests starting a private Facebook group, open by permission, and limiting access to those who need to be involved. Families or friends may also consider setting up a separate online memorial site where family and friends may post personal photographs and memories of the person who died. That way, grieving loved ones won’t inadvertently be confronted by painful images on their own Facebook pages.
“Imagine if you lost a son and every time you opened Facebook there were pictures of him there,” he said. “It would be very hard.”
Finally, as in any expression of sympathy or condolence, think before you speak or write. Platitudes such as “at least she’s not suffering any more” or “he’s in a better place now” may cause unintentional pain by being in conflict with how the grieving friend or family member feels about the death or by seeming impersonal and insincere. Instead, keep comments simple, kind and personal, whether online or in print.
And do learn how to use different emoticons, Ippolito added. Instead of hitting the thumbs-up “like” to acknowledge the news of a death, it’s now easy to indicate you feel “love,” “sadness” or other emotions that may be more appropriate.
A tool for good
Facebook can be a powerful tool for the timely spreading of news, for providing important information and for showing emotional support, Jim Fernald at Brookings-Smith noted. “My wife lost her mom recently, and her friends were able to reach out to her through her [Facebook] page and provide a lot of support and healing,” he said.
But it’s important that information about a memorial service or other logistical planning be accurate, not just the first version.
“Wait until the family meets with the funeral director before you post anything about a service,” he said.
Also, he said, curb the impulse to start an online fund to help the family pay for a funeral, a scholarship fund for surviving children or a donation fund for memorial giving to a charity. Coordinated efforts work best, he said, and in some cases, such as when a funeral home donates its services, a GoFundMe site or other fundraiser can quickly get very confusing.
People understandably want to do something to help, Fernald said, but little is lost by waiting a few days for things to settle down after the loss of a loved one.