Happy Birthday, Sorry You’re Dead

Well, it happened again…I wished someone a Happy Birthday on Facebook and then discovered they had passed away last year. This is what happens when you have an impossible number of Facebook friends, most of whom you don’t know personally.

Some people would say this is an example of how social media blunts the human experience. I say, it’s nothing new. Mass media already did that, and has been doing it ever since the assassination of JFK and the Vietnam War. The Vietnam War was the first conflict of that nature that came into people’s living rooms with Walter Cronkite. A few decades later, we were calling the first Gulf War the First Nintendo War. By that time, the desktop computer was virtually commonplace. By the second Gulf War, a home without a computer was as unusual as a home without a telephone.

My chronology may not be perfect but the upshot is, we can’t blame social media for things that actually began with mass media. And while the human experience as a whole may be blunted, that doesn’t mean we’ve become worse, somehow. In fact, the human experience has to be blunted for us to function––we can’t feel every tragedy, every disaster keenly or we couldn’t stop crying long enough to get out of bed in the morning. Or maybe ever. It doesn’t mean we don’t care. If anything, it means we have to think, not just feel bad.

Anyway, thinking or not, I have committed a birthday faux pas. And as usual, I feel awful about it. When the person’s loved ones saw that, they probably wanted to go upside my head. Because that’s how it is when you’re on the sharp end of a disaster, whether it’s something of epic proportions or the personal loss of a beloved friend or relative. Your life has changed forever, and yet the world goes on like nothing out of the ordinary has happened. Like, WTF? The stock exchange opens and closes. The sun rises and sets and rises again. People go to work, go home, go grocery shopping, go online, tweet, check Facebook––and they can’t even take a few extra minutes to find out if someone’s alive or dead? Seriously, WTF?

I could come up with some bullsh!t about how a person is still alive in the memory of those who loved her or him. Yeah, it’s true but I don’t have any business saying that about someone I never actually met in person. There’s no good way to spin this kind of mistake and it would be weaselly even to try.

What might help is getting a notice that someone has passed away when it happens. Granted, it’s not exactly a priority for families and loved ones––”Oh, damn, Charlie’s dead––better update his Facebook status.” And then what do you put in the ‘About’ section––”Currently Works At: A Better Place”? “Personal Information: It’s complicated”?

I’m sorry. I’m not really being flip. It’s just that I spent all last year whistling past the graveyard and I’ll be doing that till I can’t whistle any more. But what I need to remember––what we all need to remember, I guess––is, everybody leaves behind people who care about them. Their feelings are important. However we speak of someone who has passed, good or bad, affects them directly. 

Me, I’ll be trying harder not to add insult to injury. I doubt I’ll always succeed but I can live with that.

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15 thoughts on “Happy Birthday, Sorry You’re Dead

  1. Facebook still reminds me when it’s my late friend Joel Lane’s birthday, and it’s always a pang to see it. I usually post a message there, but of the ‘You’re still missed’ variety, as do others – but there’s usually one or two who just post “Happy birthday! Enjoy your day!”

    Other than wishing he could, all I do is remind myself it’s scarily easy to do. There are a couple of people on my Facebook friends list who I know aren’t with us any more – and, like a lot of people, I have Facebook friends I hardly interact with, if it all, but wish them a happy birthday when they come up on my newsfeed as a matter of form. For all I know I’ve made the same faux pas several times without realising it.

    Simon x

  2. Also not being flip, but maybe FB could develop a way to put some sort of icon on the person’s picture — a lily, or something less obnoxious. That way when we see their face pop up on our feed with a reminder it’s their birthday, then maybe we won’t send off clueless greetings.

  3. It is possible for loved ones to request Facebook to change the account of someone who has passed into a ‘memorialized’ account. They change a bunch of things about the page when that happens. I know that when our cousins did this for their daughter when she passed, they lost access to some of her content (favorite books, bands..etc) without warning. I don’t know if that is still the case – but it isn’t listed on this info page: https://www.facebook.com/help/103897939701143

  4. I have twice discovered friends’ deaths long after the events when emails to them began to bounce. When I eventually reached one surviving family member, I was told that my old friend had both his home and work computers passworded and that neither his family nor his employer could access his address book, so they were unable to reach his extended network of friends directly. If you’re going to password-protect your computer, either leave the password somewhere accessible to your survivors or print out your e-address book. Just sayin’.

    • I don’t know about Apple but there is a way to get around a password-protected pc. Unfortunately, I no longer remember how to do it. But a pc technician can do it…probably for a hefty charge. 😉

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  6. I didn’t comment on this yesterday, because I didn’t really relate to how you were feeling. Then in the middle of the night, I woke up and had a hard time getting back to sleep. As often happens in these circumstances, my traitor brain started dredging up memories of things I’ve done that now make me cringe. Really, painfully, ashamedly, cringe. Things I will never tell anyone. These are things I did that hurt other people’s feelings, either accidentally (I couldn’t have known they would), thoughtlessly (If I’d thought for 0.5 seconds, I would’ve kept my mouth shut), or on purpose (usually out of my own insecurities and fear). When my traitor brain does this to me, I usually get right out of bed and come downstairs for hot chocolate and a quick browse through my favorite web sites (Ravelry is good for this!). Half an hour of that and I can get back in bed and drop off to sleep without any more Horribles bothering me.

    All of which is to say, I still don’t have any helpful comment to add, but I certainly DO know where you’re coming from. I can’t go back and right the wrongs I’ve done people but I can go forward and try to be kinder and more thoughtful in the future. We’re a real mixed bag, aren’t we, we humans?

  7. If it’s any comfort at all, this sort of thing happened all the time in the days of handwritten address books – one goes to send out the Christmas cards or the February birthday cards or whatnot, and occasionally one comes back marked “return to sender: deceased”….

    • Proof again that everything that happens online has a precursor in the hardcopy world. In this case, however, you didn’t have to be embarrassed for an audience of hundreds, or even thousands––I.e., nobody knew about your card except you and whomever returned it. Which may not have been a family member.

      I’m old enough to remember the days when it was accepted by everyone that you had ‘Christmas card’ friends––i.e., people you exchanged Christmas cards with but otherwise never heard from. Often these were people you’d met somewhere, spent some enjoyable, possibly even significant time with, but they were too far removed, usually in distance, to fit into the mainstream of your life. And vice versa. So you both commemorated your shared moment by keeping in touch annually.

      These days, we become Facebook friends with people instead, and that often gives us the illusion that we’re closer, or at least more in touch, than we are. Plus, everything we do is potentially witnessed by hundreds of other people.

      Life. It’s weird, it always has been, and always will be.

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