Does Facebook help the grieving process, or stall it?

Social media tools like Facebook are lauded for, among other things, making contact with diverse groups of people in your life streamlined and easily accessible, an utterly simplified way to express shared joy at a new baby or career coup, or merely reach out to someone you’ve missed lately.

On Sunday- my birthday- I’d planned on engaging in the latter. Driving home from dinner with my family, I heard a song in the car that reminded me for several reasons of a very important man in my life. My first adult boyfriend, and never quite the “one that got away.” (The song, by the way, was “Dilemma,” by Nelly and Kelly Rowland and it spoke to me and go ahead and judge me, I don’t care.) I say he never got away because technically he didn’t, or I from him, and intermittent frenzied contact in our later years was always transient, aching, full of sadness and what ifs. What if you married me instead? What would life look like now?

An interesting prospect, and one that would not have worked nearly as well in the time we met. As Skype, Facebook, email and YouTube evolved, so too did the ways we could torment one another with what-ifs. Songs. Sad pictures. Musings about babies we never had the chance to make. I headed home entirely planning to leave the song that had saddened me on his Facebook wall, a testament to the feelings I always held about our ill-fated coupling- I married the wrong man to cope with what at the time felt like losing the only man I could ever love. Facebook itself would say it was “complicated.” But every few years, it would come up- trying again? Making it work? You move over here or I move over there? It would be different, we’re older now. Topics I thought we had forever to discuss. Both of us had intervening relationships, but a few times a year we’d connect, and it never felt like we’d spent any time apart at all, nor did it feel like a betrayal to others with whom we were involved. It just was.

What I found when I navigated to him, maudlin link in hand- an impromptu Facebook memorial- was the very last thing I expected. Dozens upon dozens of “RIP” status updates marked the page, each one attesting to something I was rapidly losing my suspension of disbelief regarding. Sometime in the weeks prior, he’d died, and I knew nothing of it until I went to his page directly. I can’t say Facebook is any better or worse for discovering someone you loved has died. I had a good amount of space to process it initially without input from anyone, no one had to witness my raw reaction. And I can’t complain, because I then notified a mutual friend via text. Perhaps a better friend would have thought it through and called.

But social media still too inserts itself even into other layers of grief. When my initial shock subsided, I consumed. Images. Information. Felt abject fear that one day his page would disappear and I’d be left with nothing- the 404ing of your most treasured memories- or that his page would be converted into a “Facebook memorial” of the official sort and all traces of his input would cease, as in real life. Guilt, so much guilt. Everything means something in hindsight, and I had every one of our last interactions, time-stamped, over which to pore- assess where I had been self-centered, unfeeling, distant or too busy to give a man who always gave me his love five minutes of listening time. Every missed connection in my mind was the equivalent of losing something of great value- my last chance to speak to him, hear his voice, see his face on a webcam 3,000 miles away- a dated reminder of every chance I’d let pass over a gulf of time that seemed inconsequential then.

It encourages wallowing, to be sure. But the remnants of the people we love left behind on their social media profiles is also a completely priceless gift- a YouTube account means you will never have to go without hearing their voice again, a selection of pictures means you won’t forget the expressions they favored in candids- those bits stay the same, but they conjure up memories almost too easily. Ungratefully, I mourn all the lost media, deleted emails or notifications that could have gone into my under the bed cigar box of memories, because we’ve grown accustomed to this information being available. An information hoarder I may be, but here I was tricked by the false prospect of forever- there was no cap on these things in my mind, no set deadline where my dynamic connection would be converted to an archive.

It’s been six days, and I can’t form and opinion yet on whether social media will be beneficial to the grieving process for users as it develops. Have you had any similar experiences with social media and grief or grieving? Does the presence of someone you loved and lost on the internet forever give you solace, or only remind you the digital copy is static, fixed, frozen in time? Have you found a way to give voice to the pain of loss over this medium as a whole, or spent days and sleepless nights ruminating?

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