Ghost Profiles & Grief in the Age of Social Media
Every morning, once I’ve exhausted the snooze button on my alarm and scraped the crusties out of my eyes, I grab my phone and look at the notifications that came in while I was dreaming. When I open Facebook, I’m always met with a memory from years ago—a photo, video, or former status I shared, prompting me to relive a moment and maybe reconnect with an old friend.
Apps like Facebook and Timehop dangle nostalgia in front of us, reminding us of The Good Old Days and encouraging us to take a walk down Memory Lane. For the most part, the flashes back in time are funny and positive. But every once in awhile, they remind me of painful memories—pictures of ex boyfriends, statuses about former friends, life updates about jobs that wound up making me miserable.
It’s been six years — six years — since my friend Emma passed away. And yet, every once in awhile, a photo she posted or a status she shared when she was still alive will pop up at the top of my Facebook News Feed, begging me to relive a moment that’s gone forever.
The Unanticipated IMPACT SOCIAL MEDIA HAS ON GRIEF
I don’t think any of us anticipated the effect social media might have on our grieving process. I know I didn’t. Emma and I are still friends on Facebook and we follow each other on Instagram, and we always will, because I’ll never delete or unfollow her. I still have her phone number saved in my phone. In fact, instead of deleting the deceased from my list of contacts, I’ve started placing a red emoji heart next to their name to differentiate them from the pack. It’s weird to have a process for categorizing contacts in my phone—dead or alive. It seems kind of silly, doesn’t it? What’s the point? Why hold onto a profile or a phone number of someone who will never post again, or never call me back?
It took me awhile — almost six years, in fact — to realize I never really got to talk about or process Emma’s death the way I wanted to, or maybe needed to. I rushed off to college less than a month later, distracting myself with dorm-room shenanigans, cafeteria food, and exams. And as much as I still want to distract myself and forget about Emma being gone, Facebook won’t let me forget.
Day after day, I am reminded of things I don’t want to relive. And not just Emma things. I got Facebook when I was 13 years old, so you can imagine that I’ve changed a bit in the 12 years since. I know I’m not the only one who’s woken up and been suddenly horrified by an unwanted photo tag or an outdated opinion shared years ago staring me straight in the face. I’m constantly caught in the crosshairs between turning these Facebook Memories off to preserve my mental health and keeping them on to remind me of happy moments I may have otherwise forgotten—like the day my niece was born, that wild college party, graduation, and landing my first big girl job.
SOCIAL MEDIA IS HOW WE FIND OUT ABOUT EVERYTHING
As a “digital native,” as they call us, the internet has been a complement to most of my life’s biggest events. I documented every birthday party and volleyball game growing up, uploaded prom photos to Facebook and Instagram in real-time, took videos of nights out and vacations. Social media is my primary news source—channels like Facebook and Twitter are where I find about everything. And I mean everything.
I’ll never forget the night Emma died. I had just gotten my laptop—the same laptop I’m using to write this blog—and I was aimlessly scrolling through Facebook shortly after the sun went down. Someone had posted to Emma’s “wall” saying how much they’d miss her and how sad they were to see her pass. I couldn’t believe it. My immediate thought was, “Ha, Emma’s going to be so pissed that someone thinks she died.”
It was then that I received a text message from a mutual friend of mine and Emma’s, confirming my worst nightmare: the person who’d posted to Emma’s Facebook wall was right. Emma was gone. And social media was the vehicle through which I first found out.
Everyone grieves differently
We were a bunch of aimless seventeen and eighteen year olds when Emma passed away. We had no idea how to process death. Then again, does anyone know how to process death, at any age? We never expected to have to grieve the loss of our friend, but all of a sudden we had no choice but to do just that. And social media added a complicated layer to our fragile, grieving state. People rolled their eyes at anyone who wasn’t close to Emma but posted statuses expressing how much they’d miss her. On the flip side, people who were close to her but didn’t—or couldn’t—talk about it online were critiqued for not caring enough. There was no way to win. There never will be. Grief looks different for everyone—and what I didn’t think about at the time, but am acutely aware of now, is that my grief will live on in cyberspace for the rest of everyone’s lives.
WHAT DO THE EXPERTS SAY?
I knew I couldn’t be the only person thinking about the impact of social media on grief, so I took to Google and started reading what others have to say. I was surprised to find that most studies and articles about social media and grief focus on the more positive side—not the sad reminders of what once was, but the opportunity social media presents for those who are grieving to connect with and support each other.
GROWING CLOSER THROUGH GRIEF
There’s something to be said about having an accessible support group. Despite being naive seventeen and eighteen year olds, grieving a mutual friend that summer changed the dynamic between us and brought us all closer. For the first time in my life, I didn’t care what I looked like or what people thought of me. All I cared about was Emma and her family. All I could think about was the pain suffocating our small town. It was palpable in every car ride, every trip to the grocery store, every walk through the high school hallways. Through shared grief, we bonded.
WHEN IN DOUBT, TALK IT OUT
Death is complex and often difficult to discuss. But research indicates that in addition to joining a grief group and leaning on your support system, talking openly about grief online can free up some of the inhibitions people feel trying to express their feelings in person. Many people find that posting on a late loved one’s Facebook profile or tagging them in a photo makes them feel as if they’re still connected. Others simply appreciate that a loved one’s memories have been captured and are so easy to access in a place we all spend so much of our time.
A CONSTANT REMINDER
They say that by the end of the century, the number of deceased Facebook users will outnumber the living. In an age when everyone has a profile on every platform, it’s hard to escape. Vicki Spratt at Grazia puts it this way, “We spend our lives trying to cheat it, deny it, ignore it. But the internet is alive with death. In their absence they serve as a constant reminder of our enduring presence. Their death, enshrined on Facebook, serves to reinforce our lives—everything that’s happened in the time since they died and all the things they haven’t been around for.”
Every year, on August 27, Facebook sends me a reminder to wish Emma a happy birthday. This notification will pop up each year for the rest of my life—or at least until I figure out how to turn off birthday reminders. Nonetheless, it is a tangible example of how social media impacts our grieving process. There’s a chance I’d forget about her birthday otherwise. I could misplace photos of the two of us dressed up like the Cheetah Girls during Homecoming Week. I could forget about inside jokes and silly moments together—like the time we drove to Target on Valentine’s Day just to buy Dove chocolates, and then sat in the parking lot eating them together and listening to sad love songs.
Thanks to social media, many of these memories live on. I can scroll through Emma’s Twitter account and laugh, remembering her wit and bold personality. I can peruse her Instagram profile and recount her incredible eye for photography and art. I’m grateful the tweets and the photos haven’t disappeared. Sometimes, I want to see them. Yet at other times, they send a shock through my system.
Receiving a notification “from Emma”, or seeing her face at the top of my feed can make me question my sanity. I don’t love that Facebook gets to decide when I am or am not reminded of my friend’s death. It feels icky, but it’s not black or white. It’s a complicated mess of gray.
NOT IN IT ALONE
Every year, as summer rolls around, students graduate high school, and the calendar flips to July, I am reminded of the summer Emma died. Certain songs, no matter how many times I listen to them, will always remind me of her—bringing back memories of sitting in the passenger seat of her car, listening to Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, complaining about parents, teachers, and rules, and wondering what our futures held. There are reminders everywhere I look, no matter what city or corner of the world I’m in. But social media adds another layer to it all—a layer that didn’t exist even twenty years ago, and one with potential impacts we’re not yet aware of.
For me, it’s comforting to spend time on an app like Facebook—a space Emma was familiar with and active on, too. A space where we still share mutual friends. It can also be stressful and sad. And from what I found, it seems even the experts don’t have a definitive answer on the situation. All this to say: grieving is hard. Growing up with social media and trying to maintain the unrealistic standards it imposes on our self image is hard. Doing both at the same time, and being reminded of it over and over again for years afterward, is also hard. But we’re not in it alone.
We’re all learning how to live with constant social media reminders, ghost profiles, and pixelated memories better left for the Trash. If you’ve experienced or are experiencing grief, feel free to contact me or leave a comment about your experience down below. I’d love to hear your take on how social media has impacted your grieving process—whether positively, negatively, or both. And here’s to Emma. You are missed.