Social Media Etiquette around Death

See also: Managing Your Digital Legacy

Twenty or thirty years ago, we knew the etiquette around death. The immediate family or next of kin of the person who had died told those around them. They also put a notice in one or more newspapers, both local and national, so that those who knew the person professionally or more remotely would be informed. There was a further opportunity to identify anyone who missed the announcement at Christmas (or other similar festival) when greetings cards were normally exchanged.

Now, though, social media has turned that process on its head. Few of us—and certainly few under 60 years old—regularly read newspapers or scan obituary columns. Instead, social media is our ‘go-to’ for news and announcements. However, this has resulted in some difficult situations, where people have announced deaths on social media before all the family had been informed. This page described the ‘new’ etiquette around death and grieving in an age of social media.

A Golden Rule: The Hierarchy of Grief

Many of us have now become accustomed to sharing our entire lives on social media. We post about what we are watching on TV, where we are right now, who we are with, and what we are doing.

It therefore seems natural to post our thoughts when we hear that a friend or relative has died. However, it is essential to resist that urge.

The golden rule of social media posts about any death is to wait for the family to post first.

Ring Theory and Social Media Announcement

Our page on Dealing with Bereavement outlines Ring Theory. This describes concentric circles, with the person most affected at the centre (the spouse or partner, for example), and more distant connections further out. The idea is that you provide comfort inwards, and can only ‘dump’ outwards: that is, you can only complain about your own grief and sadness to people further away from the person who has died.

It is the same with social media announcements. The person at the centre controls the announcement. Anyone further out should only post anything if people further in have already done so (or if someone further in asks them to do so).

You may be very sad and upset that your friend has died—but this is not about you. You do not want to cause their family anymore grief. Posting on social media may have that effect, so don’t do it.

Dos and Don’ts of Social Media Posts

Apart from this golden rule, there are other dos and don’ts of social media posting about death. They include:

1. Don’t add any extra details to the announcement

Once an announcement has been made by the family, it is of course acceptable to share it. However, resist the temptation to add more information.

The family may not want the funeral details to be widely known, or any further information about how the person died. They may also want to limit the sharing of any unpleasant details because they know that young people may see the information.

It is worth repeating: the person closest controls the announcement. Don’t do anything that may make things worse for them.

2. Make sure you get your facts straight

Before you share any information, however privately, make sure that it is correct.

Again, if you get this wrong, you are likely to be make things more distressing for the family or other friends who may read your post. If in doubt, say nothing. Simply share the announcement, and say how sorry you are to hear this news, or comment on the announcement to express your condolences.

3. Don’t expect a response from the family

Once again, this is not about you.

When you have been bereaved, and you post an announcement, other people’s comments are a comfort. It is lovely to read their memories and thoughts about the person who has died, and know that they too loved that person.

However, the family may not feel able to respond to comments, even if they really value them. Social media is great, because it gives the option to simply ‘like’ a comment, and then the person concerned knows that it has been seen. This may seem like it is a very small thing to do, but even that may be too much.

Don’t be offended if your comment gets no response, and certainly if it gets no response in the first few days after the announcement.

It is also good to keep your comments to the medium in which you heard. If you heard on social media, respond on social media. If you were texted or phoned, you are slightly higher up the ‘contact hierarchy’, and can text or phone back.

4. Avoid the temptation to be cryptic or mysterious

We have all seen ‘those’ posts: “Thinking about the Browns at this difficult time” or on someone’s page/wall: “Thinking about you today, hope it goes well” with no further information.

They are usually immediately followed by a whole string of comments along the lines of ‘U OK hun?’—all of which require some kind of response to avoid them being escalated.

If the family have not chosen to share information about a death, it is for a reason. That reason is because they don’t want that information out there.

Once again, don’t make their lives harder.

They really don’t need lots of private messages from random acquaintances saying, ‘Are you OK?’.

5. Don’t make it about you.

This one bears repeating. This is NOT about you, unless you are the person most closely affected or a very close friend.

If you were not a very close friend, then creating a big post with a photo of your dead friend, and posting about how much you loved them and will miss them, is usually not appropriate. By all means share the announcement, and add a comment. However, more than that looks a bit over the top.

This is a time for restraint.

6. Do not, under any circumstances, post on social media during the funeral

This really, really, should not need saying, but apparently people still get this wrong.

DO NOT check in on social media when you are at the church or crematorium, or make any announcement of your whereabouts. You may be seeing people who you have not seen for years, but don’t be tempted to whip out your phone and start taking selfies or sharing more information.

Turn OFF your phone at the funeral, and leave it alone. Anything else could look extremely disrespectful, and you definitely don’t want to upset the family at this point.

7. Avoid tagging the person who has died

If your friend’s social media profile is still active—which is likely—it may be tempting to tag them into posts about their death. This may be especially true if you are sharing photos.

However, it is probably best to avoid this, for several reasons.

First, someone will have to deal with all those tags. Once again, you are likely to be making things harder for the family—so don’t. Second, this is NOT a good way for friends who had not heard the news to find out.

8. Remember that the real world may be a more appropriate place to express condolences

Expressing condolences on social media is all very well. However, there is still very much a place for cards and flowers.

There is also a place for personal messages by email or text, especially later. Our page on Dealing with Bereavement notes that it is important to keep being there for your bereaved friends, even long after the funeral. However, it may be best to avoid phone calls. It can be difficult for people to manage to speak on the phone, especially soon after a death. The only exception is if the bereaved person called you, in which case it is perfectly acceptable to return the call now or later.

Just Be Thoughtful

There is a simple thread running through all these ideas.

It is about being thoughtful and considerate towards the family and those most closely connected to the person who has died. If you hold that in mind, you should avoid going too far wrong. This is likely to be especially true if you also remember that if in doubt, it is best to do nothing on social media.

To Keep or to Delete: Social Media Profiles After Death

The question of whether to keep a social media account live after someone’s death is a tricky one. In the immediate aftermath of a death, especially of someone young, their social media profile may become a place where their friends express their sadness and shock at the news.

This may make it harder for families to bring themselves to shut down the account later.

However, it is important to respect the wishes of both the family and the person themselves.

There is more about ensuring that your relatives know your views on this in our page on Managing Your Digital Legacy.