Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Dear Carolyn: I am faced with a terminally ill parent and a large, loud, gossipy extended family, all of whom are very easily offended and all of whom handle death in a way that my parents, siblings, our spouses and I find distressing and distasteful.
As social media becomes more and more present in our lives, the last few passings in the clan have been announced online by family members within minutes of the death. I hate finding out this way. Everyone also “talks” to the person who died via their Facebook walls, and continues to address the deceased in the present tense on the anniversary of their death and what would have been their birthday.
I know I can’t orchestrate how people grieve, and if this brings them comfort, that’s their business, but I can’t think of very much that’s more depressing than having to see them, year after year, online and addressing my parent as if s/he is still alive.
Is there any way to convey that we would prefer things to be done the old-fashioned way, and would like to not only break the news ourselves, via phone calls, but also prefer things to be private and tasteful and mostly offline? Or are we wrong and not “with it”? Is there a way to say, hey, thanks for remembering, but it’s really freaking creepy that you’re talking to them — how about giving my living parent a call?
You say you can’t orchestrate how people grieve, but then you ask how to orchestrate how people grieve.
Your distress about this is understandable, and certainly that on top of your parent’s illness can be overwhelming — so please don’t exacerbate the problem by attempting the impossible.
Instead, concentrate on the things you can do. You can, for one, ask them to get in touch with your parent now. “S/he is not strong enough for visits, but a quick hello email, call or video would be a real mood-booster.”
When the time comes, you can also “break the news ourselves” without announcing your intention to do so.
And, an immediate family member can have Facebook remove a decedent’s account, so you have the power to pre-empt those depressing postmortem “talks.”
I also recommend that you hide these relatives from your social media feeds or stay offline, at least until you’re more ready to face distressing content. It’s not perfect, but one click wipes out about 90 percent of the problem, and when does that ever happen?
To take it a step further, your actions are yours to control, but your relatives’ offense is not your problem, as long as you are warm and civil and careful to include everyone using a form of communication you’re comfortable using. For example, if you notify everyone by individual phone call, then, sure, they’re entitled to get offended that you didn’t post an immediate status update, but you are also entitled to respond with a blank stare if anyone complains about that to you.
I’m sorry about your parent. It really is OK just to X this social-media concern off what must be a full and heavy list of things to do.
Email Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow her on Facebook at facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at washingtonpost.com.