Death is hard. It is hard for those who have lost a loved one, friend, or family member. It is also hard for the person expressing condolences to find the right words. (Take it from me, you hear "sorry for your loss" a lot).
It seems we are now not only living but also dying on social media. Is etiquette as dead as a doornail in this new age of social media?
I am at the dawn of a demographic where my friends' parents are dying. I turned on Facebook to learn that a college friend's mother had passed away. Although the friend herself had not posted the news, someone else had, prompting a string of "so sorry for your loss xo" in the comments section. There were even some "likes" (I guess until Facebook adds a condolence button, "like" is the only even quicker option to express your acquiescence to the emotion).
I don't know why I was surprised at either the societal occurrence or the fact that this is apparently a source of great national debate in the media. What exactly is social media's place in the age-old ritual of death, dying, and mourning? Social media allows us to keep in touch and network with a large group of people that we may not have stayed connected with prior to its invention, but let's face it--it's intrinsically impersonal. Before you post on a weighty subject such as death or illness, think through the implications.
First, if you're on the sharing side, word may not have gotten around yet to all the people who felt close to this person, and social media is not the best way to find out when someone you care about dies. One blogger tells a story of a death being posted to Facebook by an non-family member before the deceased's mother even knew about it. If you hear about something, sharing it with your network could be very damaging, no matter how well intended. When the family is ready, they can announce via the channels that are right for them, and in many cases the deceased's profile page becomes a wonderful tribute to that person. As the great-grandson of Emily Post put it, "The skill of Facebooking when it comes to both good and bad news is in the timing and the simple step of double-checking before clicking the post or send button. The general rule of thumb is don’t scoop important news, and if the immediate family has not made the announcement in that space, you would wait.”
Second is both the 'what' and the 'how' of the communication. It is always difficult and awkward to know what to say to someone who has experienced a loss. "I'm sorry for your loss" is so oft-used to be trite and relatively meaningless; "I know what you're going through" rings false. Sharing a personal story about the deceased goes a long way, and may give them insight into a kindness or character trait that they didn't experience in the framework of their relationship. As for the how, take the time to make it matter! A quick post to facebook in a chorus of 50-character expressions of sympathies while you're waiting in line for your coffee is not meaningful. Consider picking up the phone, sending a handwritten note, or waiting until you can be face-to-face. Err on the side of meaningful connection vs. the immediacy and ease of response.
Lastly, the Like button. Of course you can like a sentiment, but is "Like" really an appropriate response to someone's heartfelt share? Not to mention it's about the laziest thing you can do on social media. If something touched you, at the very least send a personal message. And, if you must use social media, Facebook offers the capability of maintaining (they call it "memorializing") the site of a person who has passed away as a way to pay tribute to the person, which seems an appropriate way to express and collect memories for the benefit of the survivors.