Who owns grief?

By | 2013/04/26

iStock GriefA Brazilian judge has ordered Facebook to delete the profile of a 24-year-old journalist who died in May last year.

The mother … filed a case arguing that messages, songs and photos posted by friends and family caused her extreme distress.

BBC, Brazil judge orders Facebook memorial page removed, Jefferson Puff, 24 April 2013.

It’s an odd concept to discuss owning grief, but the case cited above clearly sets a tiered level of ownership where the rights of close family members to grieve outweigh the rights of friends, colleagues, and perhaps even other family members to express their grief.

As we form increasingly complex and numerous social bonds online, the process of dealing with the electronic remains of someone will come strongly to the fore. Many mistakes will be made along that stumbling path, and my gut feeling is this may be an example of one such mistake.

Recently, Google came up with their solution for dealing with this – an inactive account manager tool, which is detailed at The Atlantic, here. After much pressure, Facebook last year announced measures to ‘memorialise’ deceased accounts. However, Facebook also states that “verified family members may request the removal of a loved one’s account from the site”.

In itself, it seems reasonable that the closest family members could request the removal of a deceased person’s profile from Facebook. However, this fails to take into account the possibility that the deceased may have had a much closer relationship with their online friends than their own family. After all, many people end up either estranged or otherwise distant from their family, compared to their friends.

Even if we assume though that someone who has died was closer to their family than their friends, the root question becomes whether it is ethical to deny people the option of grieving in their own way, just to assuage the grief process of someone else. Particularly when technology allows an alternate solution. In the case cited at the start of the article, the grieving mother could in theory have just unchecked the “Show in news feed” item for her daughter, thereby causing herself to no longer see the posts – while still allowing her daughter’s friends to make those posts. Alternatively, if the rights of the closest relatives are deemed to have priority, it might be said that it equally becomes the obligation of Facebook to allow friends of a deceased person to download an entire “view” of their friend’s timeline prior to the deletion, so as to preserve their memories.

Handling grief is an extremely difficult situation, since mismanaged it could lead to considerable distress, and prevent the natural healing process we go through when someone close to us passes. Yet, as we find our memories and possessions increasingly stored online, we risk losing vast swaths of our personal history. We undoubtedly all remember seeing boxes of photographs held by grandparents of their passed spouses, or families of their loved ones, and so on. These treasure troves were easy to curate, distribute and maintain as physical objects. In electronic format they are shockingly susceptible to deletion.

Without a stronger focus on the grieving process in an electronic world, we risk moving into a time where death changes considerably – where it evolves from death, with memories left behind, to death, with total erasure.

I hope we do not allow this to happen.

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