5 Things You Learn When A Facebook Friend Dies
A Facebook friend of mine recently and suddenly died at the age of 36. We'll call him Maximillian Thunderfucker, or Max for short. I never met Max in person, and I'm not going to insult his friends and family by pretending that we had a deep and meaningful relationship. But, his death taught me a few things, and for that I'm grateful to him.
You're going to die one day. It might be a lot sooner than you think, and, when it happens, your social media friends will have no idea how to deal with it. This is important because this kind of situation is brand-new. Our generation includes the first people in history to deal with death on this level -- they're more than acquaintances, but not true friends. They aren't coworkers or classmates, but you see them several times a week. They're locked into this weird friendship gray area, and the human mind has never been programmed to sort out their sudden and tragic disappearance. Dealing with death on a face-to-face basic is at least up-front and personal. Losing a friend on the Internet, on the other hand ...
It's Surreal And Impersonal
I didn't think much of Max's post about being in the hospital. It sounded serious but not life-threatening, and I had seen other friends make similar posts only to share recipes for cupcakes shaped like dongs a day later. Throw in the fact that it was late, and I barely comprehended it before browsing a few more updates and going to bed.
By the time I checked Facebook the following day, the condolences had begun. I skimmed through them, as I had forgotten Max's last post and didn't understand their meaning. By the time my memory kicked in and connected the dots, I was already deep into cat pictures and weekend drinking plans, and that robbed the death of the impact it deserved. "Oh hey, Alex is throwing a party. Oh hey, Max died. Oh hey, Lisa's dog is adorable!"
"But, why does it look so tired?"
There's no good way to learn about a sudden death. A visit from a solemn police officer wouldn't be too bad, nor would watching your friend just fail to clear the last of the flaming school buses on his motorcycle and go out in a bitchin' explosion that everyone would remember forever. But, Facebook is pretty much the worst way to learn of such matters -- short of getting your friend's head in the mail. You're constantly being bombarded with trivial information, making it impossible to take the news seriously and give it respectful consideration. It would be like that cop on your doorstep, offering his most sincere condolences and then immediately asking if you caught the game last night, followed by a "come at me, bro" joke and a 30-minute speech about his feelings on gay marriage.
Messages poured in throughout the day to Max's profile, which featured a picture of him posing in silly sunglasses. Sometimes, the people expressing the condolences were just as goofy-looking, further adding to the surreality of it all. Each post was sandwiched between baby photos, selfies at restaurants, and all the other minutia of social media. Every half-hour, I would get a reminder of Max's death and my own mortality as part of a cross section of the human experience, except with far more political screeds and kittens.
"I'm so sorry for your loss, but rest assured that I'm hard at work to prove that the Bilderberg Group was behind it."
You Miss The Little Interactions
Max sent me a friend request after enjoying one of my articles (or maybe he hated it but never got around to telling me, I don't know). We never talked about it -- or about anything else. The extent of our two-and-a-half-year Facebook friendship was limited to liking and commenting on each other's posts. If it seems like his impact on my life was minimal, well, that's because it was. We were friendship's equivalent of a baseball game you have playing in the background while you doze on the couch. You can open your eyes every once in a while and catch certain plays, but watching isn't totally necessary ... you can always just check the score later. Also, fuck the Yankees.
Now, my Pinterest friends, they've changed the way I look at the world.
But, I started looking through our history and realized that his posts were a daily occurrence I was going to miss. He was polite enough to always like my jokes, even when they were terrible. He shared funny videos and fascinating articles, and he could often be very funny. He posted frequent updates on his art school studies. I liked his art. He was good at it. I was happy for him when he got good grades and sad when he struggled. Getting the latest on Max's life had become part of my daily routine, if only for a few seconds.
Like most of us, he also posted lots of the sort of update that you skim and immediately forget, but reading them in retrospect made the mundane melancholy. A joke about how his school probably contains the body of a forgotten art student who died of exhaustion during final projects now seems eerily prescient. And while I doubt Max proclaiming that he was looking forward to the new Ghostbusters made an impact on me at the time, going back and seeing him anticipate an experience he'll never have is tragic in such a quiet little way.
Also, seriously, fuck the Yankees.
And because the universe loves irony, you just know that some asshole is going to bust him.
I was used to seeing Max's name in my notifications, and it took a few days of thinking "I wonder why he hasn't posted anything recently ... oh, shit, right" for the reality of his death to set in. It's not much compared to those who had to adjust to his absence from their conversations, classrooms, and homes, but it's a testament to all the little ways an online friend can improve your life -- with just a few moments and mouse clicks out of their day.
You Learn More About Them Than You Ever Would've Otherwise
As I watched the tributes come in, I discovered that Facebook had given me a fundamental, but narrow, sense of who Max was. I knew about his education, his art, and his tastes in pop culture, but, as I dug into his profile, I realized I was missing some basic information that I just assumed I had known. He was older than I thought, not the mid-20s his youthful looks and student status had suggested to me. I don't know if he had been scraping and saving for the chance to pursue his art school dream or if he had burned out in the working world and decided a major life change was in order. Or, maybe he was in the midst of a wacky "dad goes back to college" movie plot, saturated with fart jokes and pranks that showed lots of sorority titties. I guess I'll never find out.
So, I'm going to assume he wanted to design a blade to hunt the creatures of the night.
I learned that Max had a husband, even though I had always figured he was straight and single. I realized that some of the pictures he had posted were with his husband and not just another friend, and, suddenly, photos of these two bright-eyed young men smiling for the camera on a routine shopping trip, just a few months before Max's death, took on a very different meaning.
I looked at his husband's profile and found he was much more into sharing than Max was. I read dozens of posts about the two of them going to movies and restaurants with friends, hitting the gym, or just having a quiet night alone. As I read through his timeline and saw all these happy moments lead to an awful one, it felt like I was witnessing a tragedy that I was too late to stop from unfolding, using my radiation-induced super powers. I felt terrible for this mourning man, even though I had no idea he existed a half-hour ago. And while I tend to be the sort of person who rolls his eyes at the sharing of every mundane event on Facebook, I suddenly understood the appeal of tracking every movie and meal you shared with someone you love.
Next, I'm going to work on this "empathy" thing I keep hearing about.
I went back to Max's profile and treated every inane BuzzFeed article and goofy video he had ever posted like windows into the depths of his soul, even though I had ignored them at the time. While I doubt "He was the sort of man who wanted his friends to read '23 Fabulous Disney Villain Snapchats'" made it into the eulogy, it made me realize that, had Max lived a long and happy life, I never would have bothered to learn more about him. One of us would have just stopped using Facebook at some point, and I would never think of him again. The same freak circumstance that made me curious about what seemed like a wonderful person also ensured that I would never get to truly know him.
The weird part is, that's not a bad thing. Imagine having a couple hundred or a couple thousand friends on Facebook and trying to get to know them all personally, on the off-chance that one of them suddenly gets hit by a runaway hotdog cart. That's not only impractical, it's impossible. Hell, in some cases, it's downright inhumane. Think about it ... would you want your legacy shaped by what you post on any form of social media? Look through your Facebook or Twitter feed right now, and try not to shudder at this fact: This is how many of your friends will remember you -- at least, the ones you made online.
You Don't Know What To Do
When someone you knew in person dies, it's normal for you to show up at the wake, no matter how distant your friendship was. Maybe you're there to support a closer friend, maybe the death jogged an old memory you want to share, or maybe you just had nothing better to do on a Sunday afternoon. Whatever the reason, the more the ... well, not merrier, but the more cathartic.
"Please arrive at 7 a.m. and bring a story that will send at least 10 people reaching for Kleenex."
But, showing up and saying "Hi, I'm from the Internet" would be creepy and intrusive, even if you didn't have to fly across the continent to do it. I didn't even post on Max's Facebook wall because I was worried that I would look like some stranger hopping on the grief bandwagon rather than a real friend who was genuinely sad. Hell, part of me agonized over writing this article. Is this a tribute, or am I a ghoulish profiteer?
It's considered perfectly normal to have serious online friends these days, but we haven't reached the point where they're considered as "real" as a friend you hang out with in flesh and blood, and that makes dealing with their death a social minefield. A good online friend feels just as real to us as a good offline one, but the parents who raised them and the friends who grew up, worked, and partied with them might disagree. You want to offer a tribute to the dead and support to the mourning, but you can't because you feel it's not your place.
"I'll never forget the weekend Allison and I talked about Halo for 20 minutes."
We're the first era of humanity that has had to deal with death and the Internet, but we won't be the last. The sooner we can figure out the norms the better, but, for now, I would feel strange making my presence known. "Hi, you never met me and never will, but sometimes your husband liked my Facebook posts. I'm so sorry for your loss, we're really feeling it together" is a message that means well, yet comes across like you were raised by emotionally withholding wolves. The Internet continues to bleed more and more into reality to the point where it feels archaic to separate them, but death is one subject where that gulf is still massive. And so I just sat and browsed Max's Facebook profile alone in my dark room, feeling lousy about not being able to offer comfort to strangers whose pain was a thousand miles away yet oh so clear on the screen in front of me, and wondering when it would be okay to go back to posting hilarious pictures of cats.
It Never Really Ends
Tributes kept trickling onto Max's wall as the weeks passed. Some were touching, some were tacky, and some just seemed at a loss for words, no matter how long they must have sat and tried to compose their thoughts. Friends shared memories they had or wished they could have made. People posted about doing something that reminded them of Max, or shared content they thought he would have liked. One oblivious guy sent him a message urging him to feel better that came far too late -- because we all have that kind of friend. Chad.
"Thanks for inviting me to your party. I love your fancy beer fridge!"
After all this time of not even thinking of the man as a real human being, I was suddenly getting reminders of his humanity, and the loss of it, every day. The posts have stopped for now, but I'm sure there will be more. On anniversaries of a marriage that was far too short, on holidays that should have been enjoyed together, on moments when Max just randomly crosses someone's mind the way a good friend can. Just little moments to remind me of Max and death, nestled in-between blurry pictures and invitations to play terrible games that far too often involve growing corn.
If you haven't witnessed this yet, you will. It's estimated that Facebook will have more dead users than living ones as early as 2060. Facebook has legacy options that allow you to turn your page into a virtual memorial operated by a friend, or you can simply have your account deleted and condemned to the watery e-depths. But, for now, they're not widely used or even well-known, because your grandparents can barely figure out how to share vacation photos and no young person wants to start planning for a demise that's hopefully decades away. So, most profiles will be in limbo like Max's, dormant but occasionally home to tributes and reminders of birthdays that should have been celebrated.
I've exhausted this topic's extremely limited comedic potential, so please enjoy
this picture of a dog who doesn't know how its tongue works.
The last words in Max's last post were "The ICU is scary. :(" I look at it now, and all I can think is that an emoticon has never been so inadequate and yet so devastating. I don't really know what sort of legacy Max left behind in real life, but it's nice to know there's a tiny corner of the Internet that will always serve as a memorial to his life, art, and love. Thanks for liking all my silly jokes, Max.
You can read more from Mark at his website.
Dealing with death is never easy and manifests in many forms. For Felix Clay's take on handling loss, read 5 Things No One Tells You About Dealing With Death. As the Internet grows, so too does our understanding of it. There is an etiquette for dealing with pain over Facebook. Here are some examples of how not to handle a breakup in The 6 Worst Ways To Deal With A Breakup Over Facebook.
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