"Happy Birthday, Mike! Big Day! 35!"
The seemingly normal message on my husband's Facebook page actually made me laugh, though I could've cried. I suppose the person who posted it – a childhood classmate, perhaps – didn't get the memo, or the obit. Mike didn't turn 35 that day. He'd died 2 1/2 years earlier at 32.
I have a love-hate relationship with Facebook and all social media. It's a useful tool as a journalist; it provides a peek into the lives of far-away friends I don't see often; it's a platform to share a proud moment about my kids; it's something to look at on a train.
But Facebook can be cruel – especially as I navigate grief.
That's why I was pleased to read last week that the company has addressed some of those cruelties by giving greater control to so-called legacy contacts who oversee "memorialized accounts," or the Facebook pages of those who have died. Facebook is also working to hide pages of the deceased – like my husband's – so they don't show up in things like birthday alerts, which can be painful for friends and family.
After my active, triathlete husband died from a stroke in June 2014, I was shocked and devastated. I wasn't the only one. In the immediate aftermath, friends took to Facebook to express sorrow and offer prayers. My sister made a scrapbook with Mike's Facebook posts from his final years. They illustrate his larger-than-life personality, and his love for me and our twin girls, who were just 11 months old when he died. Elle and Aubren can now read, in Mike's own words, what he wrote as a proud dad in the photo posts that document their growth.
As the years have gone by, friends and family have shared lovely memories on Mike's Facebook page, or simply said, "I miss you." One of Mike's closest friends, to whom I gifted Mike's treasured road bike, posted photos of his adventures riding that bike in places Mike never got to visit. "I think you would've enjoyed the ride," he wrote.
In these instances, Facebook is a beautiful resource – a place where those Mike friended can share and come together.
But there are downsides.
Sometimes the reminders are painful. As the five-year anniversary of Mike's death approaches, I've lost count of the number of times I've opened my Facebook app to see a memory from easier times. Thanks, Facebook. I remember just fine. When I'm busy at work, particularly stressed about something or just having a bad day, that's not the best time to study my wedding photo.
Some people write something on Facebook instead of reaching out to share a memory of Mike with me or our girls in person. But that doesn't take the place of actual interaction.
Other social media posts I see that have nothing to do with Mike or me also can be difficult. Daddy-daughter dances? Ouch. Happy family photos with two, alive parents? Sigh. I suppose in this age of living our (filtered) lives out loud, these moments I see laid out on a screen are simply proof of a hard reality to swallow: Yes, life has gone on without him.
While life goes on for me, too, and I work hard to give a full, happy life to my girls, in some ways, there is no moving on for those of us at the epicenter of the loss. There is before, and there is after. We move forward but often look back.
And in this case, Facebook can be useful. The company is rolling out a new "tributes" feature, which allows friends to post memories or messages about the deceased while the timeline of his page remains frozen in time, a snapshot into the life left behind.
Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, whose husband, Dave Goldberg, died in 2015, said this week in the announcement that those who are grieving can click on the tab to read these more triggering messages when they want to, when they're ready. It's the best of both worlds; we have the memories and photos to look back on, but with the added control to view the more painful ones on our own terms.
Mike's death has taught me a lot about how we think about grief and talk about death. Or, perhaps more accurately, how we don't talk about it.
I think others in my situation would agree that it can be isolating. Society often views grief as something to overcome. Instead, it's something I live within. I'll never graduate from grief. While time brings acceptance, it doesn't completely heal. And I think the misconception that we can all move on from a loss puts Mike's memory at risk.
I realize we're all doing our best in a painful situation, and I try to focus on the fact that I'm very lucky to have a strong network of family and friends who do talk about Mike. They help me keep his memory alive. We laugh about what he would say or what he would do in all sorts of situations. Just the other day, one of my best friends talked about his smile, and how we see it in my daughters.
And while the posts on Facebook understandably have slowed down, I still see them pop up from time to time.
I never got around to officially "memorializing" Mike's page; I didn't even learn of the feature until the year after he died. Maybe I will, especially as this new Facebook initiative shows care in handling these pages.
Likely for the same reason it took nearly a year to disconnect his cellphone, I'm hesitant to do anything. And so the page remains just as he left it, with the additional posts in the years since.
A memory of what was, a reminder to all. Mike was here.