How to cope when dead loved ones keep popping up on Facebook
Even Sheryl Sandberg found its reminders of her late husband hurtful. But there is a an obvious solution: get off Facebook
Facebook gets a bad rap a lot of the time, but it is good for some things. These include keeping on top of your group chat with 13 former school friends who now live on different corners of the Earth, watching funny cat videos, or providing a helpful log of all of your worst haircuts and outfits over the years in an array of embarrassing photo albums.
It has become something far less mundane for those of us who have lost loved ones and are left to deal with their digital legacy, which can bring both comfort and distress.
Facebook has just announced it will harness artificial intelligence to halt what it admits had been intrusions into users’ grief: from suggestions that they invite dead friends to events, to reminders to wish them a happy birthday.
It’s not the first instance of Facebook’s mishandling of the digital afterlife. In 2014 the company apologised for its “Year in Review” feature – which algorithmically turns users’ posts into videos, regardless of their content – after a father’s featured his recently deceased daughter. Others have complained of being shown ultrasounds posted before a miscarriage, or recommendations to add a cousin’s dead son as a “friend”.
Even Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, admitted that she didn’t have the power to keep her late husband Dave Goldberg’s name from appearing on the platform in unexpected places after his sudden death in 2015. “It would show up as if he were still alive, or suggest a friend, and there were things that were happening that I think were really painful,” she said, calling this update “very, very close to my heart”.
Facebook became a similarly treacherous place for me after the death of two of my best friends in 2015. Amy Watts died in the March, at 37, after a painful battle with cancer. Just three months later our mutual friend, my best friend of 10 years, and ex-boyfriend, Ish Sahotay died in his sleep of sudden arrhythmic death syndrome (SADS), at just 26.
The devastation I felt in those months is hard to think about, even now. These were two people who I loved, and who loved me, most in the world, and we had been close as a trio. Now suddenly neither of them was there. One had been taken from me gradually and in torment, the other was here one day and simply no longer existed the next.
I found that social media provided a strange solace in the weeks following both Amy and Ish’s deaths. I used it to pay tribute to my friends, to unleash my grief and tell the world how much I loved them. It helped me feel less alone, and I could chat to people who were as heartbroken as I was. I would scroll through photos of us, and read old messages: it was the only part of my friends that still tangibly existed. As time passed, however, I had to try not to focus so much on the things that had turned my life upside down so dramatically.
I quickly realised that Facebook wasn’t going to make it so easy for me to try and pick myself up.
Because of my closeness with both Amy and Ish, my page was littered with our memories; reminders of shared jokes, photographs of nights out and holidays. The “memories” function on Facebook, which shares with you all of the interactions and posts on your page from the same day over every year you have been active, was something I genuinely dreaded.
A message from Amy telling me that she would always love me “to the moon and back” left me in tears on the Tube on my way to work. A photograph of Ish, Amy and I arriving at Universal Studios in Los Angeles in 2010 popped up one day. Looking at our smiling faces consumed me with loneliness. I was the only one left, and that we could never have even conceived of that possibility at the time made the photograph even more heartbreaking.
Sometimes I felt strong enough to laugh at an old joke or a photo. Mostly, though, it was rubbing salt into a wound that didn’t seem to be healing.
Like many millions of Facebook users, algorithms turned my 2015 into a “fun” video of the year’s memories, presumably selected for being the ones with the most likes and comments. Mine was now made up of my tributes to my dead friends. By the end of that year I had developed crippling anxiety, to the point where I could barely travel on the Tube – so scared had I become of being underground with my own thoughts, which would always turn to my grief, and traumatic memories of my friends’ funerals.
One thing I could do to stop myself drowning in self pity was to deactivate my Facebook account. It seemed impossible that I would be able to move on if I was reliving old memories every day – even if they were happy ones. For at least a year I would leave my Facebook account deactivated when things felt too much. I still leave it switched off for Amy and Ish’s birthdays. It is now possible to “memorialise” an account, with a legacy contact left to oversee the page. This is aimed at stopping upsetting content being automatically generated, or to stop their name coming up for event invites.
You don’t have to keep a loved one’s page there at all, of course. When my friend Toby died suddenly in 2016, his family and closest friends decided to archive his page and started a separate account for people to share their favourite photographs and memories of him instead. I liked the idea that the account he had when he was alive wouldn’t become a place that was now solely about death.
Although we’re now a decade in, grieving in the era of social media is still pretty uncharted territory. There is no right or wrong way to do things. If you don’t post a tribute on Facebook or Instagram it’s not wrong: you don’t care less than those who have written a 1,000-word account of their friendship. There is increasing pressure to do so, as if public acknowledgement could ever represent what’s going on for a person privately. Removing yourself from Facebook during those times to avoid upsetting memories isn’t hiding from grief. As I found: sometimes it’s the only way to cope with it.
How to manage your digital legacy
Social media accounts are just the tip of the iceberg; most people now have more than 100 digital accounts for everything from banking to photographs, music, films and books, but granting access to loved ones in the event of death varies enormously.
Google lets you pick up to 10 trusted contacts who will be notified if your account becomes inactive for a certain period of time and give them access to data you’ve specified. Apple has no formal process to pre-identify a digital heir and, technically, any rights to content in your iCloud terminate with you. It is becoming increasingly common to build a digital legacy, leaving clear instructions, alongside your will, on how loved ones can access your accounts. Log-in details shouldn’t be included in the will itself, since it becomes a public document after probate, but many online password managers allow you to set up emergency contacts in the event of your death.– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2019)