Delete after death? What to do with digital identity when a loved one dies
When Facebook sent out birthday notices to Vic O’Sullivan’s late sister’s friends and family, it was a reminder that it was time to lay her digital footprint to rest
Vic O’Sullivan’s sister Michéle (above) developed a flair for giving online advice to a much wider audience on Facebook
Like all big sisters, Michéle was prone to giving advice: buy Dunnes Stores’ oven baked chips (not bad); watch Netflix tonight (maybe); name our first born Dudley (no way.) When I finally coaxed her onto Facebook after years of resistance, she made up for lost time with a flair for giving online advice to a much wider audience with the assistance of daily quotes and cartoons.
It was while I was sifting through Auden and Dickinson for advice on the right words for her funeral last November that my daughter turned to Michéle’s Facebook page. She discovered an upbeat reflection about life and simple pleasures that my sister had posted on a wet Bastille Day some months earlier. It was to be these words and not poetry, recited by our brother, which resonated off the crammed church walls at her funeral.
Last month, Facebook sent out birthday notices to Michéle’s friends and family, and it was a reminder that it was time to lay her digital footprint to rest. The timing is the first challenge for the recently bereaved in the new quandary of dealing with social media presence after the death of a loved one. Sorting the matter out too soon can create extra grief, leaving the decision for too long can appear almost neglectful, like an unkempt grave. A good friend told me that when she deleted her father’s account it was like burying him again.
Dr Elaine Kasket, head of programmes for counselling Psychology at Regent’s University in London, says that there is no “fix all” solution for the issue as each case is different. A "power struggle” over how to deal with an account can occur within the deceased’s social network, or Kasket says, that in some situations it can be with the social media giants who host the accounts. She quoted the case of Hollie Gazzard, whose family went to battle with Facebook to have photographs of her murderer and ex-boyfriend removed from her account.
Estelle McGinley, a senior social worker at the Milford Care Centre in Limerick, says that families need to reach consensus on the matter.
“The challenge about when to close an account is reminiscent of other issues that bereaved families would have had to face, such as disposing of the deceased’s clothes. This can be a very emotive process as clothes and possessions are full of meaning and memories, therefore it is a process that should not be rushed but undertaken when the bereaved feel able to do so.
“Although this is an issue that is likely to become more commonplace for families, I am not aware that there are any guidelines for families about how to handle this difficult topic.”
McGinley, an experienced grief counsellor, warns the recently bereaved to watch out for trigger dates or events in the weeks and months after the passing of a loved one.
“It is advisable to manage online accounts sensitively and to anticipate that birthday or similar notifications may be deeply upsetting to grieving people. Being confronted with unexpected notifications may cause distress for the deceased’s network of family and friends.”
Social media sites provide an online guide through the practicalities of dealing with the largely uncharted terrain of digital demise. When Twitter receives a notification by an “authorised” person of a member’s passing, it will request personal ID along with information about the deceased, which includes the formality of providing a death certificate.
Twitter also adds extra provisions when it comes to the removal of a deceased member’s pictures at the time of his or her passing. According to Twitter’s website, an authorised person "can request the removal of images or video of deceased individuals, from when critical injury occurs to the moments before or after death, by sending a request to Twitter Inc. via our privacy form".
However, Twitter stops short of guaranteeing full removal of this sort of imagery. It states that "when reviewing such media removal requests, Twitter considers public interest factors such as the newsworthiness of the content and may not be able to honour every request". iti.ms/2eqUxz3
LinkedIn is predictably matter of fact when it comes to the passing of a member. It will close a member’s account on notification, with a link to an obituary, the date of death and, of course, being LinkedIn, it would also like to know the deceased’s most recent workplace. iti.ms/2ee9HtY
However, with more than a billion daily users, for many, Facebook is the internet and it has consequently become the world’s biggest cyber graveyard. Dealing with the deceased’s Facebook account has become just as much a part of putting affairs in order as burial for an ever-increasing portion of the population.
Facebook has gone some way towards recognising this growing issue by creating four options for the bereaved:
1. Deleting a Facebook account The process is simple, and quicker with a death certificate. Facebook requests the date of death and other personal details on this link. iti.ms/2eqVYgU
2. Memorialing a Facebook account A memorialised account has the word “remembering” before the deceased’s name. The timeline is maintained and existing friends and family can still post comments and photos. However, accounts no longer appear as friend suggestions and birthday reminders cease. iti.ms/2eeca7B
3. Legacy accounts A Facebook user can assign a friend or family member to manage his or her account after death. This legacy contact can respond to friend requests, post information about or on behalf of the deceased, and update profile and cover photos.
4. Facebook page Anyone can create a public Facebook page to commemorate an individual.
McGinley says that as long as a memorialised account does not interfere with the normal grieving process, the bereaved can use it as a method to communicate with their loved ones.
“Whilst the term ‘communicate’ may cause some alarm, this is something we have always done after a person has died, whether it be at the graveside or ‘talking’ to them in the kitchen at home.
“Continuing to post messages on Facebook may seem unusual, but it seems to me a contemporary way to keep the deceased a part of our lives.”
Kasket endorses this view. She says that from time to time the bereaved may want more than just to rely on memories; they may want to meander alongside the deceased’s digital footprint.
She describes the memorialised account as a digital “shoebox” of reminiscences, something deeply personal that should be readily available for the bereaved person to pull out from their cyber closet at any time.
She equates the full deletion of a Facebook account by a family member to the physical removal of memorabilia from the deceased’s wider network. “If someone broke into your home without your permission to remove an actual shoebox filled with your friend’s personal mementoes; that would be illegal.”
With that in mind I’ve requested a memorial account for Michéle. There is so much of her on her page, from her favourite earthly haunts such as Quin Abbey to her otherworldly love of Van Morrison’s music.
And who knows when I’ll need to check in to seek her advice on the best way to grow an endless supply of garlic at home?