A Death on Facebook

On Monday morning, a former high-school classmate posted a somewhat cryptic message on our class’s Facebook page. She talked about how she wanted to do a better job of staying in touch with people, and she specifically mentioned a fellow classmate, Johnetta.

I thought the post was a little odd. Out of context, I really didn’t know what it was about. Johnetta didn’t comment on it, so I figured it wasn’t a big deal.

Over the next 24 hours, whenever I was on Facebook, I noticed in the upper right of the Facebook homepage (the mini-feed) that Johnetta continued to comment and Like things as normal. But for some reason I was compelled to click on Johnetta’s profile, and I was shocked by what I found.

Johnetta passed away on Saturday. Her Facebook comments over the last few days were actually written by her mother, who was using Johnetta’s phone to correspond friends and family. To my knowledge, Facebook doesn’t “announce” deaths–in this age of digital connection, we typically still find out about death the old fashioned way–one person calling another, then they call someone else, and so on down the line.

There were hundreds of posts on Johnetta’s wall. It felt a bit surreal as I scrolled through them, partially because Johnetta’s face was still there in the comments (through her mother), and partially because it was like walking through a recording of her wake, listening in on everyone’s conversations.

And, of course, the news was devastating. My high school class was small–about 120 people–and we’re all around 33 years old at this point. Despite its size, our class had cliques and divisions and tiers just like any high school class. Yet Johnetta was universally beloved, and she loved universally. The best way I can put it is that Johnetta was like a warm hug, all of the time.

This isn’t a sympathy post for me or anything like that. Despite how I felt when I heard the news, I’m sure it pales in comparison to Johnetta’s closest friends and family. But I felt like I should write something.

2 thoughts on “A Death on Facebook”

  1. I’ll keep your friend Johnetta in my prayers, as well as her family. You have my condolences as well, even if the sorrow you feel pales in comparison with that of her family, you still feel it nonetheless.

    Jamey, I think your reaction is absolutely normal and healthy. We need to mark the loss of a person and I think that takes a new language with social media and the relative permanence of web-based media like your blog. When my grandmother passed away I penned a eulogy for her on my blog, and my grandfather asked me to honor her memory by giving the eulogy in the mausoleum where our other family are buried. I remember that vividly and it gives me great peace to think of our attending her memory, that the words will reverberate in the marble. The only greater comfort comes through faith that I will be able to sit with her at the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.

    I hate Facebook. I leave it often and end up having to come back to deal with some tragedy – the death of a friend (and there have been too many), the tragedy and tumult in Ferguson and my family’s need to know if we’re okay. I have taken to using it totemistically, as if to say “I’ve been on Facebook sometime in the past week so nothing bad can happen.” I hate it because it fundamentally changes how people communicate and interact. Maybe I’m using it wrong. But it does change our communication and so it’s something of a norm to post remembrances on someone’s wall. And sadly, as we age (I’m older than you so I feel your shock at losing someone at 33), we’ll see that deaths will be more often announced on Facebook. I suppose the only way that’s worse is to see it on the news. At least on Facebook you can post your sorrow and be joined very quickly by lots of people, and perhaps that will lead to phone calls and lunch dates and hugs and all the normal ways that we share our sorrow and remind each other of how precious we are.

    • JT: Thank you for sharing. I’m sorry to hear that you’ve experienced so much loss–that’s really sad. You’re not much older than me!

      So, for me, even though Facebook made the death a little more surreal, I have an appreciation for it because I was able to read so many different perspectives from the people who loved Johnetta. High school friends, college friends, work friends, family, etc–everyone had a story to tell or a sentiment to share. Sure, these are the kinds of things I might be able to hear at a funeral or wake, but I appreciate the accessibility Facebook provides. Despite that, my instinct was to reach out directly to a friend who knew Johnetta to chat about it, but going through the Facebook wall was very helpful for me.


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