When #Friends Die

Social Media, and Facebook in particular, increases our connections – it more easily invites us into other people’s lives. Historically, we maintain a network of a maximum of some 150-friends, otherwise there are just too many people, names, faces to keep up with. Psychologists have recommended that we don’t maintain more than 354-Facebook friends because of the combination of the effects of our propensity to post only positive things, thereby leading us to unfavorably compare our own lives to those of others.

Life does happen. We can now see into the lives of others more ably than ever before, which is a connection – no doubt. What happens when that connection is severed, not through a falling out or the click of an “unfriend” button, but through death. What should we do with our online connection when one of our “friends,” or worse “in person” friends, passes away?

I’ve struggled a bit with this – I had a friend who knew he was failing, and he took great pains to make sure those connected to him understood that he was comfortable with death. He said what he had to say and he was at peace. When he passed, his family posted notice of his passing and his friends that he had so carefully prepared mourned. But then what? Do I “unfriend” him?

We are so good with beginnings: Facebook posts that you’ve made a new friend, Twitter announces to you when someone has begun following you. We’re not so good with ends: connections are terminated without an acknowledgement. And so it goes, that when a life ends before a connection ends, it is a question left unanswered.

I’ve had a childhood acquaintance pass away suddenly through accident. It was a particularly harrowing situation because while I was connected to him through other friends, I wasn’t connected directly. Many of my friends were able to express their sympathy directly to his wife or on his Facebook wall, but I was not – and perhaps that was best, after all, as I was able to express my condolences for my friends’ loss. It was eerie, though, so pull up his wall and see him smiling yet to know he was no longer with us. A similar feeling came to me upon learning of the passing of another friend’s mother. I know him through online ventures, although not in person – I helped him write his resume. I was looking for information on his mom, and found her wall. To see the things of interest to her, her connections and activity up to her death was a bit unsettling.

Regarding the first friend I discussed, I said my condolences to his family through his wall and said my final words to him…and unfriended his account. It was too much of an emotional investment to see notices posted to his wall, comments of his loved ones expressing their missing him.

We all grieve in different ways. Perhaps had I more of a connection with him, I would have wanted to keep that connection – almost like being able to visit a grave site. I know many of my in person friends have kept their connection to our common childhood friend’s account and stop by on occasion to comment. A blessing and a curse, really. I honestly don’t know what is a healthy response: is it healthier to keep that virtual connection or to let it go? Should loved ones remove the account, or keep it active? Perhaps it is best to be able to say good bye, have that final conversation, and let go. Life isn’t about hanging on to the past, it is about our own individual journey, and when our journey ends it may be best to let the minutiae and detail of it rest with us.