One smog-choked summer’s afternoon in Cairo, my mother popped up on Skype and sent me a string of messages. It was only weird because at that point she had been dead for seven years.

The muscle-memory of the mind kicked in as I instinctively reached out to reply. Then a tidal wave of grief came crashing through my window. 

That week, as it turns out, someone had taken to hacking the social media profiles of friends and family to send me threatening messages.

My dead mother’s unprotected Skype account was an easy hit.

But, in that moment, I realised something they never tell you about death: social media is not your friend. For so many reasons.

(The other thing they never tell you is that half the battle with grief is managing other people’s inability to deal with it, but more on that later.)

Social media platforms have been around for more than 20 years but we still do not have a clear answer of how to deal with our devastating digital footprints once we die.

There is nothing written in UK law on how to handle the tricky mess of digital inheritance, or how to define our digital estates.

That becomes far more complex when there is something more tangible like money – what happens to the millions trapped in lost PayPal accounts or a myriad of other online wallets? What about bitcoin? Who bequeaths that to their loved ones and how?

Then there are our public profiles. Take Facebook. Within 50 years there will be more dead people on Facebook than living, according to a recent report by Oxford University.

Researchers say before the end of the century there could be as many as 4.9 billion deceased users floating around the internet, their digital debris in tow. It’s plausible that at some point in the future, our virtual selves will become as numerous (and infinitely less recyclable) as our real bodies.

For those left behind that is tricky to navigate. 

My mother, who had the social media savviness of a sea snail, accidentally set up two Facebook profiles.

For a year after we buried her, Facebook kept insisting I reconnect with her, via both profiles, as we hadn’t messaged in while. I spent months screaming hot tears at my computer trying to toggle off the reminders or silence her accounts.

And in that is the heart of the issue: who has the right to your photos, to your passwords, to access or close down your profiles? And to what end?

Back then, in 2009, there were even fewer discussions of what we do with it all: dust to dust, ashes to ashes, Facebook profiles to infinite indefinite Facebook profiles.

These days Facebook, like other platforms including Instagram, have since set up a memorialisation process where your profile page can turn into a kind of living electronic cenotaph: photos are archived, messaging functions are switched off and friends can leave comments like bouquets at a gravestone.

This can be activated by your chosen “legacy contact” or a sort of digital executor.

But on Twitter and Snapchat you can only deactivate the account, provided someone sends in a death certificate. This can be tricky; I’ve been told awful stories of people finding out they have lost family members when, because of time-zone differences, well-meaning friends have shut down the deceased’s social media account.

The other option is just to leave the profile hanging there, suspended indefinitely. And I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing.

It’s weird but sometimes I find myself searching through the digital debris of relatives and friends who have passed away as if the immediacy, the urgency, the lifelikeness of a tweet or post might cast some light into the terrible unfathomable finality of death. Even if that is just one final innocuous retweet.

And it is not just immortal profiles which haunt the living. Our own social media platforms can be as devastating to us as those belonging to our lost loved ones.

Ten years ago today, in Marsden hospital’s death ward, I stood bent double over my mother’s face counting like music the long bars of her last breath. When she stopped breathing, we wrote panicked emails to friends and relatives on her Blackberry.

Those messages are precious transcripts to me now. As are the responses. Most are warm and supportive. A few are brief and bizarre.

And this is the bitter truth about loss that has been echoed to me by so many friends who are grieving in a digital age.

You never realise how difficult it is handling everyone not being able to deal with you and what you are going through. Even if you didn’t ask them to do anything at all. 

In the past, people might cross the street to avoid speaking to you and tackling their embarrassment at your suffering or your reminder of our collective mortality. But these days with the myriad social media landscapes that our relationships exist in, those rebuttals happen on WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Gmail, Signal, Viber, Telegram, Instagram, Twitter, even Snapchat. There are literally hundreds of platforms you have to navigate. 

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen people respond to a heart-shattering Facebook post from someone grieving, with “RIP” or “at least he/she is not hurting any more”. As if a speedily typed acronym would be appropriate. As if losing a love in your life, no matter how long they struggled with that illness, was ever “for the best”.

I sat with a colleague two years ago whose best friends failed to send a single message while her brother was on his deathbed. The same people chatted away on their WhatsApp group chat as if nothing was going on and were confused when she cut contact with them.

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Another found out his schoolmates had secretly formed a separate Facebook group to plan nights out and trips, without him since he “was grieving”. They were trying so hard to be respectful they had tumbled into being unkind. That said, I understand the blind panic when you are confronted with someone crumbling before your eyes, who cannot be helped by anything you can possibly think of saying.

That can be even more jarring when it happens online, as the pleas of mourning slide tinnily into a stream of happy thoughts, of cat videos, of holiday snaps, of mindless chats, of Candy Crush games.

Grief, the continuous process of trying and failing to comprehend the completely incomprehensible, is isolating enough as it is.

And there is nowhere more isolating than the paradoxical beast of “social media”: the great communicator and separator, the gratifier and the humiliator, the performance of truth and theatre of lies.

We need to find a way of dealing with death and social media: that synthetic ever-present present, that will outlive us and maybe undo us. 


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