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Our Digital Destiny

In death, we live on through social media as loved ones preserve accounts and cope with loss in new ways.

As we become more dependent on the Internet, and find ourselves constantly connected through apps and social websites, we are beginning to understand the way humans cope with big life questions—like birth and death—online. Grieving death has a new social element now that we are able to communicate with others about it across online platforms. When we post to a loved one who has passed on, or to a newborn or unborn baby—or create accounts for people who have no control over the pages—we are creating a digital footprint for that person. One that will not go away, whether it was made before birth, or added to after death. But when we post to loved ones who have passed on, we are doing more than adding to their digital footprint—we are tailoring our grief to our needs. Today, social media allows us to  cope with loss in an individualized way.

Dealing With Grief

“Good morning, Madi,” Tina Clark says each day as she wakes up in her home on the outskirts of Fort Wayne, Indiana, knowing she won’t get a response. She takes in a breath of her daughter’s loofah that she sleeps with each night, inhaling the lingering scent of Madi’s body wash. She checks her phone, then gets up to start her day.

Tina’s daughter, Madison, or Madi as she was often called, died by suicide April 30, 2016, at twenty years old. It hasn’t been easy, but Tina has found a tool to cope with her loss—and it has come in the form of social media.

Before she utilized this coping mechanism, she was angry. She went out drinking more than usual. She drank to get drunk and to forget. She also started drinking and driving. She didn’t care who she hurt—even if it was herself. After Madi’s death, she wanted to die, too.

Tina closed herself off from the world. She was sick of people she barely knew coming to her house to give condolences. She hated seeing pictures of people’s happy lives on Facebook. Family and friends of Madi were posting photos and memories of her, but Tina avoided looking at them. It hurt her too much to think about her daughter. She kept her social media accounts active—keeping Madi’s digital footprint alive—but didn’t alter them. Being on social media was too painful at first.

This is a valid way to grieve, says Deborah Mix, an associate professor of English at Ball State University who created a program in which she and students studied vernacular memorials—memorials that serve as functional rather than monumental. She says Facebook doesn’t know any better—it runs on an algorithm—so it can ambush a mourning person with painful memories of a lost loved one in the form of birthday reminders or old photographs. It could set up an upsetting experience.

Tina’s other daughter, Megan, was living in California when she found out her younger sister had died. No one out there knew Madi, so they weren’t really affected. They were able to continue their lives normally while Megan was hurting.

Unlike her mom, Megan turned to social media. This was the only place she didn’t feel alone. It was the only place she was able to connect with people who could relate to the pain she was going through. Social media helped comfort Megan until she was able to come back to Indiana to be with Tina.

While some people may not be ready to see photos and posts on social media, it can be helpful for others, says Christine Sefein, the clinical director of adult programs at Our House Grief Support Center in Los Angeles. Social media puts grief on a public scale. Those who turn away from social media after loss are not yet ready for that.

Tina didn’t want her grief publicized in any fashion. She didn’t want to open up to anybody at first, not even in person.

A few months after Madi’s death, people who were close to her began coming to Tina with signs they felt they received from Madi. Tina wasn’t a devoutly religious woman, but she couldn’t help but be jealous of these signs she thought had the potential to be Madi. There was the butterfly that kept lingering around Megan. A pastor from Madi’s church saw her in a dream, glowing with a red-orange aura. Madi’s first love even said that she came to him and spoke directly to him while he was in the shower one day.

Tina hadn’t received any of these signs, and she became upset. Why isn’t Madi talking to me? I’m the one who loved her the most. If there was a God, she wanted him to reveal signs from Madi.

When Tina first heard that Madi’s first love had heard from her, it was through a text. She was out with friends and had drunk enough margaritas that she knew she wasn’t in the right state of mind to have a conversation with him. But the boy was desperate for a response, so he came to the restaurant where Tina was. He told her about the interaction he had with what he felt was Madi’s spirit and how she wanted him to lead Tina to God. He would not leave until Tina acknowledged what he believed was Madi’s request. And finally, through a hazy tequila fog, Tina started listening.

She’d never been big on religion; she couldn’t quite get behind something that left her with so many questions. But Madi had always tried to get her into it. They made an agreement that they would start going to a Saturday night service together shortly before Madi died. Now, Tina was desperate to have that connection back.

Tina began sifting through Madi’s study Bibles. She opened Madi’s nightly devotional and followed the pages to a bookmark placed in between April 29 and April 30—the day she died. She decided she had to be accepting of this kind of stuff if she wanted to receive signs from Madi. So she opened herself up to God, and she prayed. And to her surprise, her anger and bitterness at her daughter’s death began to melt away. When it was gone, she began posting about Madi on Facebook—finding solace in social media in the same way Megan did. Mostly, Tina shared Bible verses and testimonies that made her think of Madi and healing.

Finding a Connection Through Death

Processing her feelings through Bible verses did not heal her completely, so Tina went to a support group for people grieving loved ones lost to suicide. But it didn’t help her.

Tina walked into her first session and immediately felt weird. She brought her best friend with her for support, but she still didn’t feel right. There were about twenty other people there and they were all sitting at different round tables.

Everyone introduced themselves, and then moved on to sharing their stories.

“My daughter drank bleach for the third time,” offered one woman. “And that third time, she was successful.” Tina ached. Madi wasn’t like that. Another woman spoke up. Her husband had tried to hang himself multiple times, and like the girl who drank bleach, was finally successful.

Tina felt sick to her stomach. The people in those stories were troubled and wore it on their faces. Her Madi loved life and loved to smile. Her suicide was impulsive; she wasn’t like the people in these stories. Like most suicide deaths, Madi left a note. In it she detailed to her loved ones that she was not happy and needed to be with God. To Madi, the world was cruel, and she wanted to leave.

When Tina left the support group that day, she knew she would not return. No one truly knew her pain—what it felt to have her daughter ripped from her grasp so unexpectedly.

Sitting in groups with others who didn’t have a story like Madi’s just felt pointless.

Instead, she talked about Madi through social media with others who felt her pain. Tina realized she was able to connect with people who have gone through the same situation she has in online grief communities. She has found more comfort from people on Facebook than she has through in-person support groups. Because she knew they understood what it was like. They had stories similar to Tina’s, and they shared her pain.

Tina found out about a suicide march in Auburn, Indiana, in December of 2016 through Facebook, and she decided to go and walk for Madi. She shared the event on Facebook and said all were welcome. She made and sold shirts—black with pink angel wings because pink was Madi’s favorite color. Madi’s team of marchers wore the custom shirts or other pink clothing items to signify they were together.

This wasn’t the first suicide walk Tina participated in, but there was something different this time. When Tina arrived at the march, she noticed an overwhelming amount of red T-shirts. This group of friends and family members had the same idea she did, to wear matching clothes for their lost loved one. She needed to know their story—she needed to find the grieving mother, who she knew would be wearing white beads.

White beads signify the mother of a child lost to suicide; each mom received the beads before the walk started. Tina had the same beads around her own neck. Finally, she found the beads and approached the mother. They shared experiences and found out their children had similar stories. The two women exchanged phone numbers and agreed to stay in touch.

When Tina got home, she added the other woman as a friend on Facebook. She shared her son’s story and posted about the comparisons to Madi’s story. Once again, social media was helping her to cope with her loss by finding others who shared her pain.

Mix, the professor who studied memorials, says online platforms allow collective interactions. People have a space to see how others are handling a loss and start conversations based on their perceptions. She says humans sometimes avoid talking about grief face-to-face because we are nervous we might say the wrong thing and upset others.

Another way social media aid grieving is with the ease of communicating between long distances. These platforms make it possible to connect with people we wouldn’t normally be able to—people who live far away, or who we don’t even personally know.

The world saw this play out on December 27, 2016, when suddenly Twitter became a global memorial service for Carrie Fisher, the comedic actress best known for her role as Princess Leia in the Star Wars saga.

Fans dug up quotes from past interviews and shared Fisher’s humorous obituary request—to report that she drowned in moonlight strangled by her own bra, when in reality she died from complications of a heart attack she suffered four days before her death.

The world found healing through a community created online, the same way Tina found more healing through sharing her grief with others on the Internet than she did in person. Sefein, the director of adult programs at the grief center, says social media outlets add a community-building aspect to grieving.

The ability to share and connect about a common topic with people from all over the world provides a different type of comfort. People are able to seek out others grieving the same person or specific situation they are. This goes back to what Sefein said about grief being on a public scale now.

The Internet has made grieving a social activity.

Tina heard about a woman who was on The Bachelor who had died in the hospital two days after a suicide attempt back in 2013. It was another story similar to Madi’s, and she wanted to talk to the woman’s mother. She needed to tell her about Madi.

Tina tried Googling the mom to find any sort of contact information, but she wasn’t having any luck. She gave up for a while. Then she tried again. This time she was able to find the mother on Facebook. She sent her a private message and the woman called her immediately. She wanted to talk about her daughter, too.

The two mothers text every day and are just there for each other if one ever needs support. They comfort each other in hard times and rejoice in cheerful ones.

They haven’t talked about meeting up in person. Tina lives in Indiana and the other woman lives in New York. Tina doesn’t like traveling. She likes to stay with her dogs in her home, where she can feel Madi’s presence.

Keeping Memories Alive

On November 4, 2016, Tina noticed she had been tagged in a comment on Facebook. She opened the app to check the notification. When she clicked on it, she was brought to a photo of the tree that she had used donations to plant in memory of Madi, at Riverside Gardens Park in Leo, Indiana.

A local photographer was taking photos in the park when she came across Madi’s picture next to the tree. She took a photo of it and posted it on Facebook with the caption, “At the park, I came across this newly-planted tree in memoriam of a young woman who died too soon. I didn’t notice while I was taking this picture, but it looks like there is a rainbow leading to the tree with an orange-red orb next to it. I read that an orb this color means confident, healing energy. Awesome!”

One of Tina’s friends had seen the photo and tagged her in it. Tina got goosebumps when she saw it. She knew it was truly a sign from Madi—a sign she had been searching for. There were a couple of incidents that Tina perceived as minor signs, but this one was bigger. The orb matched Madi’s red-orange aura from the pastor’s dream.

Like this unexpected blessing, Tina has found that social media allow her to keep Madi’s memory alive—whether it is she who posts about her daughter or a stranger. Facebook takes this social grief to another level with the option to memorialize an account if the user has died. Introduced in 2009, memorialized accounts are a place for friends and family to gather and share memories after a person has passed away.

The word “remembering” appears next to these memorialized pages. They don’t show as active accounts. A memorialized profile does not show up in suggested friends or in birthday reminders.

This might be the best option for some, but it really depends on the individual’s family, Sefein says. The world of grief has turned away from the five stages model—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—and has adopted a more fluid method. One important aspect of this model is maintaining a connection with the person who died.

“We don’t forget them,” Sefein says. “We find ways to keep them in our hearts.”

Memorialized accounts can act as this connection. They honor that the person has died and act as a tangible sense of reality of the death. Memorialized accounts offer users a new way to preserve the memory of a loved one who has died. But Tina isn’t quite sure that is the best option for her situation.

Instead, Tina has the email address and password to Madi’s Facebook profile, and has access to post on the page. She used the forgotten password feature on Facebook to send a password reset email to Madi’s already-logged-in email account. From there, she changed the password so she could have access to her daughter’s Facebook page.

Sefein says the decision to keep an account active is ultimately up to the family or loved ones of the person who died. They have to focus on what’s going to be most helpful to them, not to everybody else.

Tina has been debating if it would be okay to post from Madi’s account on the anniversary of her death. She’s on the hunt for the perfect song or poem that says, “I’m in Heaven, I’m doing well, and it’s okay to move on,” from Madi. If Tina can find one, she will post it.

She doesn’t want to creep people out by posting as her daughter, but she wants all of Madi’s friends to know that she is in a better place. She wants to reach the right audience with her message. That audience is Madi’s friends and family, who once connected with her on Facebook in life, and again in death.

Tina was logged into Madi’s account to change some of her settings to private. She then forgot which account she was on when she saw an article that her daughter, Megan, shared. It was titled, “This Is Why The Strongest Girls Feel Insecure All The Time.” She read it and immediately knew she wanted to share it because she thought it described Madi perfectly. Tina didn’t realize she had accidentally shared the article from Madi’s account until one of her friends texted her saying Madi’s account had been hacked.

Tina panicked and began asking friends for help on how to edit a post. She added text to the post saying, “This reminds us of Madison and other girls who fit this scenario.”

Mix says that while posts like this could be scary or upsetting to Madi’s Facebook friends, they could also be comforting. It really depends on how active a person was on social media while they were alive that determines their digital presence after they die.

If someone was a regular poster online, the sudden absence of frequent posts is jarring and noticeable to his or her friends. Mix says these people are more likely to receive a wave of posts to their pages when they die than those who are inactive on social media during their lives.

When Madi died, several friends wrote messages to her through Facebook. Most were saying she died too soon or sending prayers to Madi’s family. Many of the messages were more directed toward Tina to help her stay strong during the worst time in her life.

Moving On

Sitting at her dining room table in late January, 2017, Tina thinks back on her journey through life without Madi. It’s been almost nine months since Madi died, but it doesn’t feel like she’s gone. Just a few feet away in the living room, there are photos, cards, and plaques surrounding Madi’s pink floral urn that sits on Tina’s mantel. Just outside the window, Tina can see the memorial she set up for Madi in her backyard. She changes out the flowers depending on the season. Right now, she looks at a sea of pink for Valentine’s Day.

On warm days, she likes to sit out there and feel the silence surrounding her. Every so often, the wind will blow the chimes next to Madi’s picture. Tina feels at peace. She knows Madi is in a better place now than she was while on earth.

“I wouldn’t want her back,” Tina says. “Not in a million years.”

If Tina sees Madi again, she wants to go to her. She doesn’t want Madi to come back to the world that caused her so much pain.

Until Tina is reunited with her daughter, she will continue to keep her legacy alive by posting about her on Facebook and healing through social media in her own way.

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