Death 2.0

Thomas O’Brien reflects on death in a digital age.

death-of-facebook-end-of-social-media-world

Tash Lucas wrote on Lewis Stanton’s timeline.

12 October 2012

“Man, your 21st would have been epic! I miss you so much!”

Lewis Stanton’s birthday is today, and Facebook promptly reminds me so upon logging in, encouraging me to “write a birthday wish on his wall.” Before doing so, I decide to take my cue from what others have written. Scrolling down past the profile picture of a smiling boy perpetuating the careless happiness that only a teenager could exude, I’m struck by the sheer volume of birthday wishes. I spend some time reading, attempting to express the complexity of my feelings about Lewis, his birthday and his Facebook.
I don’t know what to write. But eventually, after accepting the norm from what others had posted, I begin typing.  “Happy Birthday Lewis! Everybody wishes you were here for it, but you’ll be celebrated, loved and remembered today nonetheless. We miss you mate.”

Hours later, I receive a notification from Facebook: “Tim Stanton likes your wall post.” An indication that Lewis’ brother had read and evidently appreciated my birthday message. Throughout the remainder of the day, Tim would continue to individually read and like each birthday message posted to his brother. I don’t know what the message meant to me, or really what it meant to Lewis. To be blunt, it physically couldn’t have meant anything to him. But to his family, and it seems circles of his friends too, Lewis’ Facebook is a comforting virtual grave; a portal into a life lost young.

We place some of the most important moments of our lives on the Internet.  Now, more than ever, we are living on Facebook.

But what happens when you die on Facebook?

Lewis died in 2010 in what should have been the usually uneventful closing weeks of the year. And yet despite his death, his Facebook profile lives on, and we all live on with him through it. Lewis’ Facebook legacy is not a particularly exceptional story, but alas it is a personal one. His 21st birthday has prompted this very reflection; a personal insight into what it means to hear about death and subsequently grieve on Facebook.

I acknowledge my writings perpetuate more questions than they do answers. This is perhaps fitting for the boy I write about. He didn’t leave behind many answers; no note or signs of depression.

What he left us was his Facebook; digital immortality.

 

***

 

Madeleine Neville wrote on Lewis Stanton’s wall.

5 December 2010

“can’t believe it. don’t even know what to write. such a shock. Bye friend 🙂 I’m glad to have known you. Rest in Peace xxx

December 6, 2010. The morning rays of Saturday sunshine awoke me from the hotel floor, where I was living the not so luxurious life of a backpacker in Europe. My back was telling me I was an idiot for sleeping on the thin carpet, but I was just happy to have made it to London. Less than two weeks into my European adventure, I’d flown into Heathrow late on December 5. The details pertaining to what should’ve been a simple journey from Lisbon to London were frustrating at the time, but hindsight casts a different light upon them.

I was meant to be flying out of Lisbon with my friend Emily early on Friday the 5th. However, due to a Spanish airstrike, I was stuck in the airport alone for the entire day, waiting for my severely delayed flight. Emily flew out early; I wasn’t so lucky. By the time I arrived in London, it was too late to book into a hostel, so I pleaded with my best friend Matt to let me crash with him on his brother’s hotel room floor. Thankfully, he obliged. I didn’t arrive to the hotel until 2am, thus ending my marathon day.

I’m thankful for the events of that day. To this day, I thank the Spanish Air Controllers for shutting down Spain’s air space, because it meant I was forced to find accommodation with Matt rather than be amongst strangers in a hostel. I thank my severely delayed flight because it meant I was sitting in an airport for hours, preventing my frequent usage of the Internet and Facebook. Because of these seemingly inconsequential series of events, I was without the Internet for over 36 hours and thus the first word I would receive of Lewis’ death would thankfully not come from reading the hundreds of obituaries left on his Facebook page. Instead, I heard about Lewis, the same Lewis who had hugged me farewell at a pub in Sydney ten days prior, from a far more comforting source than a computer screen. As Matt and I got ready for the day ahead;,my parents rang the European number I was yet to give to my Sydney friends. And so it eventuated that I heard some of the most inexplicable and incomprehensible news of my life from my parents. To this day, most of all, I thank my parents for staying up late in Sydney to ring me that Saturday morning, because their voices, explanation and calmness provided me with an outlook that the World Wide Web never could.

I coped by spending the day with Matt, stumbling about London together in a slumber. Amongst other things, I drank heavily. Sure, it was a clichéd reaction, but it calmed me down. Prior to the alcohol, I’d broken down on the London Tube of all places, sobbing quietly in the corner of a carriage, wiping tears and phlegm onto my jacket. As awful as it was, I now know that my immediate reaction could have been worse, unbearable even. Had I been alone in a hostel and heard through Facebook, I honestly don’t know how I would’ve coped. While hypothetical scenarios are not all illuminating, in this case, it represents the difference between the warmth of a voice and the text of a computer explaining the inexplicable.

I am still yet to fathom the potential pain of learning such news from Facebook. When I started to write this, the memories of that day make me wonder just how many had suffered the pain of the Facebook death knock. So, like any other member of Gen Y seeking immediate answers, I googled, and ultimately was saddened by stories of such situations. In 2009 Sydney schoolgirl Brenda Lin was holidaying in New Caledonia, and upon checking Facebook, discovered her immediate family of five had been murdered. That same year, The Daily Telegraph reported a story where a family heard of their daughter’s death via Facebook, and immediately drove straight to the carnage of her car accident. In both situations, the delivery of news via Facebook only worsened their pain. The incidents prompted The Punch columnist Lanai Vasek to vent her frustrations. “There needs to be some sort of regulation…Users need to make a concerted effort to self-regulate and censor potentially insensitive posts,” she says. Vasek’s reasoning is resolute. “I refuse to believe that we have to sit around and simply let families and friends find out their loved ones are dead, in arguably one of the most insensitive ways around.”

I don’t believe it either. And yet, it continues. According to Nicole Russell in the Sydney Morning Herald, 70 000 Australian Facebook users passed away in 2011; meaning incidents aforementioned will only increase as Facebook’s population grows bigger in number and older in age. In total, Facebook says over 200 000 members die each day worldwide.  Perhaps, in ten years time, learning of death through Facebook will be a social norm, and not even worth me writing about in these pages before you.

But for now, it remains one of Facebook’s ugliest occurrences. To better understand the potential harms of a Facebook death knock, I spoke to Ceiny Maybury, a Lifeline counsellor and coordinator of their Suicide Bereavement Group. “I imagine to hear of the death of someone you know online would be quite confrontational,” she told me. In all her experiences of grief counseling, Maybury says she has come to appreciate the importance of delivering such news by being physically present. “It is really important not to leave the person…before they can contact their support systems. Obviously online does not allow for this”.

No. No, it does not.

 

***

 

Caitlin Dylan wrote on Lewis Stanton’s timeline.

12 October 2012

“happy birthday Lewis. you are in our thoughts today and everyday. lots of love to you up there : ) xxxxxx”

It’s been nearly two years since his death, and friends and family still gather on Lewis’ Facebook to share memories and often simply just to say hello. Most people are writing to Lewis, not about him. I did this myself in the immediate months following his death; typing to him as if he was receiving my messages. More often than not, people would like or comment on my posts to Lewis, as did I to others. Everybody was comforting each other, validating anything anybody placed on Lewis’ Facebook.

I don’t know when I began to feel slightly uncomfortable by this, but it happened. Perhaps it was when the grief wasn’t so raw, and my emotions were not an absolute. Regardless of when my apprehensions emerged, they did, and with them, lingering questions. I don’t know if I have a right to these questions. I was Lewis’s friend, but not one of his closest. It almost feels selfish of me to ponder such questions when there are plenty more people who were more affected by a loss much deeper and immense than my own. But alas I ask them anyway.

Is there something voyeuristic about grieving online; allowing the Internet to publically see your emotions? Do we feel the need to grieve on Facebook to seek validation?

I come from an Italian family, and have relatives who have worn black for months following a relative’s death. It’s an expression of sorrow, yes, but it’s also a public exhibition, for whatever purpose.  I’m struck by the similarity of the Italian form of grieving with the Facebook form: both are very public, designed to display grief.

I can’t speak for the hundreds of people who have written to Lewis, but really, who is this all for? Because I don’t know if I can any longer buy into the idea of there being 3G and good mobile reception in heaven, let alone there being a heaven at all. And so, with some people, I can no longer tell whether all this Facebook grief is for Lewis, or if it is in fact for us.

The Saturday following Lewis’ 21st birthday was spent with friends at a BBQ, where I asked three of Lewis’s friends, Caitlin, Thomas and Chris, their thoughts on the subject. Caitlin told me she felt that occasionally people who weren’t close to Lewis had used his Facebook to seek attention, but that was never her motivation. “I think it’s a really good way to show your respect for someone who passed away…It’s the right thing to do,” she says. Chris, one of Lewis’ closest friends, shares my unease about people publically grieving. “I’m cynical…I look at people who do it for attention. It’s like people are like ‘Lewis has died, Oh cool, have I ever been in a photo with him, I’ll put that as my profile picture’”. Chris perhaps described it best, when he characterised some people’s interactions with Lewis’ Facebook as “self-promotion almost”.

My apprehension is not intended to pass judgment on anyone. Many of Lewis’ legitimate and closest friends take great comfort out of such virtual remembrance. I simply find myself asking, in an age where we share everything on the Internet, what becomes of grief when we share that too? Are we reducing it in some capacity? Stanford psychiatrist Elias Aboujaoude is one of the few to publically state the potential pitfalls of social media grieving: “Grieving is complex and difficult, and it takes time, and if it feels simple, easy or more efficient online, then maybe we are diminishing the process somehow.”

I can’t say my grief has been worsened by Facebook, but what is evident is the way the social media site has publicised the nature of grief. In most cases, his closest friend share genuine memories, writing to Lewis to keep his memory alive. In other cases, there are occasions where I and others at the BBQ believe certain people to be seeking attention, validation and likes. But in the middle of this debate at the BBQ, Thomas posed an interesting analogy that disregarded people’s motivations, good or bad, for writing to Lewis. “If you’re trying to compare Facebook with a real gravesite, does a family feel better when there are more flowers brought to a grave?”

When Thomas said that, I was immediately reminded of Lewis’ brother Tim, a week prior, liking each individual birthday message to his late brother on his Facebook. And so perhaps it’s wrong of me to consider the ulterior motives people have to publicly grieve, because at the end of the day, it’s evidently bringing some comfort to his family and friends. These messages are the flowers at the grave, the virtualisation of ‘I miss you’.

Grief 2.0. Sharing death on Facebook is a remarkably new phenomenon, and perhaps certain etiquette hasn’t yet been established. Traditional practices have changed with the advent of social media, and I believe they’ll continue to over the coming years.

Writing this, I realised that I had no idea where Lewis’ grave was, let alone if he had one. When I asked friends, none of them were completely sure. Apparently it might be at Macquarie Cemetery, but if so, none of his friends had been.

But why should they? A cemetery is physical evidence of Lewis’ death.

On Facebook, Lewis forever lives on. Come his birthday next year, it is there his friends and I will gather yet again to wish him a happy 22nd birthday.

 

N.B To respect the privacy of those in written about, certain names have been changed. 

 
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