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Social Media Is for the Living

Let’s just face it—the posts we write on our dead friends’ walls aren’t for them, they’re for us.
November 26, 2014, 2:30pm
​Image: Author

​Katelin got sick on Halloween and died on Thanksgiving, successfully claiming those two holidays as her own for the rest of forever.

Not really knowing what to do when the person you were closest to in the world is suddenly gone, forever, I spent much of the next day sitting at home locked in my room. There was no hospital to go to, no waiting around for doctors, no text message updates from her parents (or from her), no worrying left to do. A text I sent her on the ride home from the hospital was unseen, like I knew it would be. There was just nothing.

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I sat alternately watching Simpsons episodes I'd seen a million times (just like I did when we broke up every single time—and there were lots of times) and refreshing her Facebook, waiting for The World to find out what I already wish I didn't have to know.

And oh, there were Facebook posts. Lots and lots of Facebook posts. Facebook posts from her friends, from my friends, comments on those posts from strangers. Eventually, there was one from me.

If I want to be reminded of Katelin, there's the physical things—the notes we passed each other in high school and the couple of t-shirts that got left at my house over the years, but there's also the digital stuff.

Image: Author

There's the saved drunk dial voicemail I have from her that lives on in an NSA-tapped Verizon cloud somewhere and the YouTube uploads from the student films she was in. There are the text messages and pictures on my old phone—a phone that was perfectly fine but that I replaced in part because I was terrified of losing it, of losing those. If we want to get retro with it, there's the Xanga and there's the MySpace, both of which I presume still exist. There are the emails and the Gchat chat logs. There's the SD card from all our trips and there's the other SD card that I put them on after she died and there's the zip file on my desktop and on a server somewhere and they're on Facebook too, because everything is on Facebook.

Her Facebook isn't really hers anymore. There's none of her wit, her playfulness, her sarcasm or her capital letters. There are few jokes and lots of intense feelings and lots of people who miss her and want people to let them know that they miss her too. And, well, let's just face it—the posts we write on our dead friends' walls aren't for them, they're for us.

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At the end of last year, Facebook told me the post I made about Katelin a few days after her death was a Highlight of 2013; a social media homerun; very good for my personal brand; great for my Klout score. And yet, nothing I wrote or have written since has changed in any meaningful way how I feel about losing someone I loved. I'm grateful for the likes, I suppose—it confirms that people care. But, well, I already knew that. The words I wrote in that Facebook post didn't confirm anything anyone didn't already know. Katelin knew I loved her and so did anyone else that really mattered.

So why did I feel like I had to write it? Why do we write posts to dead people? Wouldn't an email into the ether that is her Gmail account be just as cathartic? And why did I find myself feeling upset as I watched those Facebook posts roll in a year ago?

Death takes away a person's life (duh), but it also takes away a person's ability to control their own narrative. People came out of the woodwork to show how much they care, which is—and I mean this—very much appreciated by those who were closest to her.

But it's complicated.

I don't mean to begrudge anyone of their feelings, but some of it feels—and this is a hard word to choose—perhaps opportunistic. Katelin is now (to some people) the person who died of cystic fibrosis, the sad story she never wanted to be. Her death has, just as with the deaths of lots of other people in the social media age, become at least to some extent about how people have reacted to it.

Image: Author

People she couldn't stand compete with people who couldn't stand her to prove who cares more, who has more feelings, who can write the best song about her, who can craft the best metaphor about what type of energy or light she brought into this world and how dark it is without her in it.

Her Facebook page, which was full of posts like this right before she died: "i would srsly pay good money to have someone come to me and wax my eyebrows right now. the jankiest of the jank" and and this: "25 is a lot like 19. except i dont have to pretend to be sober in public as much," is now full of well-meaning people (myself included) who post sad things to let people know that they are still sad.

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There are people, I'm sure, who simply wanted to acknowledge what had happened and move on, worried that to do anything less would feel insensitive. Others got genuine catharsis from whatever they wrote. There's no need to begrudge either type of mourner, but what, exactly, has happened in our society that requires we mourn in such a painfully public way?

And that's perhaps what I'm getting at here: I wrote my post because I wanted to, and because I had a lot to say, and because I was feeling lost, but I also wrote it because I had to.

When your best friend dies, you write about her on Facebook. When your dad or mom or brother or sister or grandma or grandpa dies, you do the same. You say "Hello world, I am hurting. Heal me with your likes." To do less, in an era in which social media exists, is to risk looking like a sociopath who lacks feelings.

And so, I wrote about Katelin then and I am writing about writing about Katelin now; whether I was ready then, I don't know, but it was raw, so it felt OK. Now, it feels like traveling to a mental space that I'm not particularly ready to revisit—and, whether I want to or not, it still feels obligatory to not only think about what her death means but also to share those feelings on social media. In writing that, and in writing this, her death has turned into something that is about me, and what I—someone who knew her better than most anyone else—have to say.

That may be a personal hangup. If I explained to our friends that I'm not really ready to visit the part of me where I explore what it's like to watch my best friend slowly die in a hospital, they would understand, tell me to not worry about it.

But what if I didn't say anything? What if I continued to post jokes and pictures of nights out and photos of the New York skyline and let the date pass without commemorating it on Facebook? What if I kept my grieving process internal and offline? What if I didn't write this—this thing that does not feel like a tribute to a friend but more of an unscientific examination of why the digital healing process feels so complex?

After I wrote about Katelin, a not-insignificant amount of people messaged me telling me they were waiting for me to Say Something. Facebook has become a platform where people not only can remember those who have died, but are expected to remind people that they are remembering those who have died, and for some reason that feels like too much.

If, in a year, I don't write anything, will my friends—our friends—think I don't care anymore? Isn't thinking about her on my own enough? Isn't it, in some ways, better?

For her 25th birthday, Katelin McMullin wanted to raise $25,000 for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. She's passed that goal, but, hey, ​here's the page set up in her memory. Thanks for reading.