Talking About Death on Facebook: Do This. Not That.

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As an estate planning attorney,  I talk about death all the time.   Sometimes, I am talking to people on the worst day of their lives.  Other times, I am asking them to talk about their own death.   While people have a variety of ways of dealing with these uncomfortable conversations, it is always my job to be sensitive to the language of death.  My mother was a big believer in the rules of etiquette ala Emily Post, but I think she would have also appreciated the more direct instruction to “Do this.  Not that.” – Maureen

Did you just hear that a friend or relative has passed away and feel the need to “do something”?   It’s not necessarily the best option to jump on Facebook or Twitter to express your sorrow.  While your intentions are good, it’s very easy to upset others and damage relationships.

In an article posted on Next Avenue (  titled Addressing Loss On Social Media, author Mark Ray offers some sound advice for anyone who may find themselves in this situation.  He calls this the “netiquette of death and grief”.

One major takeaway is to ask yourself whether “it is your story to tell”?   Remember you are not a news source and you may be violating the privacy of the family at a particularly vulnerable time.

Do This

If you are responding to someone else’s post announcing a death, do this.  Express sympathy and support.  Be kind.  Be thoughtful.

And if you are sharing the news on behalf of the family, be very intentional on what you post.  Ask yourself these questions:

Has everyone who should be notified personally been informed before you post?

Does my post provide enough information that readers aren’t left guessing whether someone has passed?

Should I post memorial or funeral information?

Do members of the family prefer to be contacted by email, text or phone call or at all?

Will the survivors see your message on social media or would it be better to send a card in the mail?

Not That

What did she die from?  Was he in pain?  Did she still recognize you?  What’s going to happen to the house?  

There is no need to ask about the cause of death.   Families will announce it if they feel the need.  Others cherish their privacy and sometimes feel a duty to protect the legacy of the deceased who preferred to keep an illness private.  Stories of health or emotional struggles may also be saved for later.

An interesting suggestion made in the Next Avenue article was Facebook specific.  Consider naming a Facebook legacy contact who will be able to manage your account after you pass away. Otherwise, your loved ones may lose all access and the page may be deleted. Mark May relates the store of  a well-intentioned friend who was helping a wife by monitoring her husband’s Facebook page memorialized the page, the wife lost all access to his account. You can avoid this if you name a Legacy contact for your account.

Of course, the netiquette suggestions apply to other online forums, too. In reality,  it’s not that the messages need to be so very different online. But remember that your online message may be seen by hundreds and remain visible for years.

Reference: Next Avenue  (August 7, 2019)  “Addressing Loss on Social Media: 8 tips for understanding the ‘netiquette’ of death and grief”

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