When someone you love passes on, does their Facebook profile live on? Carol Natukunda and Titus Kakembo bring you real life stories of facing death in the digital age.
A friend updates her status saying she has lost her baby. A colleague informs his friends of his wife’s passing. These kind of messages pop up in-between friend’s party photos on Facebook. The question is: when someone you love passes on, does their Facebook profile live on? Carol Natukunda and Titus Kakembo bring you real life stories of facing death in the digital age.
trueEdith Batuka, visual artist
I feel like I can still talk to my baby. She was a chubby rose-eyed girl who lived for 90 days and suddenly passed on at Mulago Hospital.
I know baby Portia Nakatte went to heaven because she left earth before committing a sin.
Once every year, I travel to Bulemezzi in Ndejje to place a wreath on her grave. But having baby Portia on my Facebook wall makes me contain the loss. I find myself muttering sweet words to her.
Friends who knew her post emotional support messages, others text comforting words and together we share a chance of honouring her.
On Facebook, I do not need a specific place to mourn. There, on line, I have kept Portia alive. I tell her the things I am doing and sing her a hymn. As I scribble to her, it feels like she is still bouncing.
Her photo out there is evidence that Portia once existed. When I see the photo, I cannot fight back a smile or a tear of mixed emotions.
Lately, I have realised how technology has influenced the conventions of grieving among my friends. It offers them solace, but also uncertainty.
When one of our Facebook group members loses a loved one, we often create an “In Loving Memory of Posting,” which runs parallel to the funeral arrangements by the given family.
Dozens write on our group’s wall, but the late’s own wall is often the most preferred ‘gathering’ place. It is where the comments like “I am speechless for words right now,” or “I cannot believe that just yesterday I saw you and now you are gone.. I miss you so much. RIP” are posted.
Jerry Mulumba, journalist
The time when we would get to know more about the deceased at the memorial service has been overtaken by Facebook. In the responses to a friend’s death on Facebook, I am always struck by how much I had not known about them.
For instance, when Hakim, a friend of mine, passed on in East London, I learned from what friends were posting that he loved horse-riding, animals, music, photography, acting and his penchant for perfecting the Jamaican language.
Facebook has a new form of grieving which raises new questions. Unlike traditional mourning which is governed by conventions, you can post anything on Facebook.
According to the Facebook posts, many friends were shocked that Hakim passed on in his mid-20s.
Six weeks after his death, one friend posted Hakim’s picture dancing and guzzling beer. Was it the right time – I still wonder?
On Facebook, there are no laws to guide anyone on what to post. One can change a profile page of the deceased into a memorial page. But the question remains: how do you interact with someone who is no longer able to logon unless one has the password to keep managing the page?
Prima Ndaba, fresh graduate
By the time dad died in 1999, we were all young and hardly knew anything about social media. But when mother (Alice Ndaba) passed on in 2008, we were grown up and already on the social media. So was mum.
As children, we pushed her to join Facebook. She asked us to open her an account and manage it.
When she lost the battle to cancer, we were all frightened. First, my elder sister who works in the media had written a real life story of the difficulties we went through while nursing mummy.
We were overwhelmed with messages of sympathy. It got us crying when people visited our Facebook page. Every time I held her phone, I logged onto her page, but I ended up so emotional after looking at the family pictures.
I felt so helpless. One day, my siblings and I did not want to hold on.
We deleted the page since we knew her password. It seemed the right thing to do. We felt that since she had passed on, the page should not be there either. And that was the first step of starting to let go.
That said, I never forget to talk about her death, especially on the day she died. Even though she is not here, it is my way of checking on her. I am surprised at how much it comforts me to see that other people care.
Why do people feel the need to express grief or loss on Facebook, a social networking website with nearly 500 million users that straddles the line between public and private?
Facebook memorial pages, which are often open groups that anyone can join, have become popular. To create a memorial page, one has to sign in to Facebook and click on “create a group.” You type in a name for the memorial page you want to create and choose whether you want to have it as a closed group or an open one.
On one hand, some people say having these pages allows someone to give information such as funeral locations and also act as a virtual space in which friends and family can post tributes.
“It helps people to communicate, and you would be surprised who offers to help during that trying moment,” says Clever Mutebi, a communications specialist.
However, he notes that sometimes, there can be very painful moments when the people posting on your Facebook wall are insensitive.
“Not everyone on your list of friends knows you personally and they might not care how you feel. They write anything. A colleague told me she felt like punching the person who wrote: ‘I know how you feel because I have been there. You are lucky your mum has died when you are old enough, and you have a job.’
That was insensitive because there is no age limit for grieving,” Mutebi says, adding: “Social media means you will have to deal with all sorts of responses, including those who think they know better how you feel.”
Mutebi stresses that once you post something, you should be ready for all sorts of reactions. “Recently, we had an incident where an MTN employee died in a car accident. This was a young person, so full of life. The people who hardly knew the deceased began to circulate the picture of his body in the crashed car.
"The person who posted the picture might have been grieving, but the people who subsequently shared it did so recklessly; they did not consider the feelings of the deceased’s family,” Mutebi explains, adding that with Facebook, it is hard to avoid sensationalism.
“Some people even click ‘LIKE’ when you post about death of your family member. And you wonder what they are liking!” Mutebi says.
Jaffar Amin, son to former Uganda president Idi Amin, keeps his Facebook wall busy with photographs of his dad. In one of the pictures, he is shaking hands with former Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere, while in another he is swimming, cruising a sports motorboat or making Europeans bend to enter a hut when he was president of Uganda.
In a Sunday Vision interview with his siblings, they all concurred that their father was very loving, caring and a disciplinarian. They argued that the media, books and movies portray him wrongly as a tyrant.
Facebook is the place where they share their sweet memories of times that have flown by.
“Using social media can be a coping skill because it helps you open up and let out the steam,” says Rev. Peter Matovu, the head of the counselling department at Nkumba University. He notes that by posting a notice of the loss, a person is able to inform and reach out to a wider circle for support.
How to help a friend in grief
Rev. Peter Matovu, the head of the counselling department at Nkumba University, says even with social media, it is important to be careful on how we communicate to people dealing with loss of a loved one.
“Let the bereaved freely talk and write as much as they want. People who are grieving may need to tell the story over and over again, sometimes in minute detail. Be patient.
Repeating the story is a way of processing and accepting the death. With each retelling, the pain lessens,” he advises. Other means of helping the bereaved cope include:
- Do not say anything. Sometimes keeping quiet helps the person to move on.
- Offer comfort and reassurance. If you know them personally, be there for them physically. You do not have to do anything. Being around them helps.
- Do not give unsolicited advice, claim to “know” what the person is feeling, or compare your grief to his or hers.
Is Facebook the right place to grieve?