This project begins on the worst day of my life, the day I told my friend Heather that Eric was dead. We sat on her couch together, and after a few deep breaths I was finally able to move my tongue and create the sounds that would tell her our friend was gone. I will never forget her expression. I can only describe it as absolute, inescapable horror. Our mutual anguish filled the room like a dense fog. She didn't want to sit on the couch anymore. We fled to her bedroom, as if changing rooms had some power to undo the wreckage. I remember feeling mad when her roommate came home and didn’t have the same tortured reaction when we shared our news – but how could she? The grief was ours to bear.
And I did bear it. And I managed to say the same words to many other friends. A phone call in the mall while shopping for a black dress. A text when I could finally look at the words in tiny digital print. It felt like spreading poison. Eventually the news started to move faster than me, which I was thankful for. His funeral was well attended. Afterward, we ate Mexican food.
I feel it's important to note that I'm an empath and a Pisces—overly sensitive at worst, possibly magical, but most simply attuned to my friends' emotions. I felt I had to be the one to support the others. As if there had been a secret vote among my friends that named me everyone else's counselor. Chief of grief. I didn't fight this imaginary role, but I also did not know if I was capable of providing such support to my friends when I was hurting so deeply.
Somehow I emerged from that shadowy place, the underbelly of a friendship lost. I graduated college. I moved to Atlanta, and then to New York City. And still this loss would hit me again, a sudden and overwhelming wave of sadness. Never as all encompassing as when I first saw Heather's pained face, but I still felt chained to his death, drowning in it. One time I threw flowers into the ocean, attempting a new ritual in his memory, or perhaps as a peace offering; maybe if I appeased the beast I would be spared further suffering. Maybe I would learn the secrets of “moving on”.
But now that he’s been gone longer than I even knew him, I no longer believe moving on is in my best interest. Why would I want to forget the joys of our friendship? Why would I want to stop sharing memories? It makes me happy to look at his photos, to read old messages, and even to reread my own emotional posts online. Revisiting his memory in these ways makes me feel connected.
I want to leverage my experience and urge more open, honest conversations about death to help normalize all feelings and reactions. No one should be told to “get over it already!”
I knew I wanted to jump into this space after I learned that Facebook had created a way for its users to designate a "Legacy Contact". Your Legacy Contact receives restricted access to your Facebook account in the event that you die. They are able to change your profile picture, accept new friend request, and post important information about your funeral to your public profile. Legacy Contacts can also download or delete your Facebook data.
This both excited and disturbed me. Do I need a Legacy Contact? Who would I pick? Would my choice impact the friendships I left behind? Is this the ultimate Myspace Top 8 selection?
Outside of my own small universe, observing Facebook's quiet implementation of the Legacy Contact feature made me question what happens (or should happen) to our data when we die. Is it important for my Facebook account to be memorialized? Do I want traces of myself floating around the Internet for eternity? I reflected back on the loss of my friend Eric, and how I devoured his social media in an attempt to absorb everything about him that was publicly accessible. I never before thought about how our grieving and mourning practices have changed as a result of social media. I began my inquiry here.