August 08, 2014
Death in the Time of Social Media
Posted by Usha Rodrigues

I think I'm not alone in saying that Dan Markel's murder has thrown me. In fact, I know that from attending his memorial this past Monday at SEALS.  The sudden death of one so young and vibrant is always shocking, and a violent murder all the more so.  Amongst all the strangeness, one of the things that still feels strange is the way I learned about Danny's death: Facebook.

I've been hesitant to post this because it feels too personal-- transgressive of rules I can't articulate but which remain potent. But if I  have taken anything from reading and listening to people's reminiscences of Danny, it's that he would have said "Just post it, Usha. Just blog.  Start a conversation."

1. The discovery. I heard about Danny's death via text-- basically out-of-the-blue news that he'd been shot and killed. Nothing more. Incredulous, I went to Google. Nothing. Nothing. But on Danny's Facebook wall kept appearing post after post saying farewell, offering condolences.  Thankfully someone had asked in a comment "Wait, what happened?"    A comment thread elucidated the bare (and untrue) fact that it was a home intrusion.

2. The quest for information:  For two days I kept returning to Danny's page, reading messages and grasping at rumors and details.  I mostly lurk on Facebook, looking at photos and keeping up with people's lives.  Suddenly, however, Facebook had a non-frivolous function: it was an efficient and effective way for an impromptu community based around one person to communicate news on the murder investigation and information about memorials, funds established for the boys, and funeral arrangements.

3.  The grief. And here's the heart of it. Danny's Facebook page became this impromptu site for mourning and outpourings of grief. Many--indeed, most--of the messages addressed Danny personally and unself-consciously:  "I will miss you.  The last time I saw you...."  Other messages voiced the awkwardness I felt, and went along the lines of messages of "This seems like an odd place to express my feelings, but Danny loved social media so much..." and went on to share their story.  One,which particularly stopped me, was addressed to Danny's beloved sons.  The writer averred that someday they would read these testimonials, which would let them know how important and beloved a man their father was.  

Is this grief today? Facebook allows you to meorialize a deceased person's account.  The account remains in a sort of suspended state: no friends or photos can be added, but the deceased's friends can share memories and even "send private messages to the deceased person."  I have known only a few friends who have died with Facebook pages.  They have remained, and on certain dates (often birthdays), their friends post tributes or just short notes of remembrance.  I think Facebook's policy is that they can remain indefinitely.  Which is to me equal parts comforting and disconcerting.

I look at Facebook a little differently now.  For one, I can see that it is a powerful, perhaps uniquely efficient way for disparate individuals united in their caring for one person to share information in times of crisis.  It is also a private community created by the deceased himself that can share their grief.  That fact is important, I think.  That Danny himself had chosen his friends meant that implicitly we could be trusted.  The private nature of his page was especially important in a high profile murder case: I was contacted by a few members of the press. I am sure that on a public forum many would have refrained from posting at all.

Still, I was uneasy expressing myself to that community.  I felt like I should say something, but I wasn't sure exactly what to say, or to whom I was speaking.  Ultimately (wouldn't you know) I blogged and posted that link to Danny's page. While I knew Danny from starting law teaching at the same time, most of our recent interactions had been blogging-focused, so that seemed right.  And Danny was never one to shy away from difficult or uncomfortable topics, so here's this question is a tribute to him: has Facebook changed the manner in which we grieve?  

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