When my husband died at age 30, Facebook became my lifeline to the outside world
Article originally appeared on Washington Post
“You’re not going to post this on Facebook, are you?”
My husband, Alex, always wanted to know if I was posting a picture or status update about him. As extroverted as he was, he was private about many things. He also was humble, so he didn’t want too much attention drawn to his birthday or most recent job promotion.
Despite our political differences — I’m a Democrat; he was a Republican turned “independent” — we hardly argued about anything. But we often debated the usefulness of social media. He didn’t think it was important what casual acquaintances thought or were doing, while I love seeing everyone’s pictures and reconnecting with old friends.
But when Alex passed away in March after a massive brain aneurysm at age 30, I couldn’t worry so much about what he might think of what I was posting on Facebook. Very abruptly, I’d lost my best friend and partner of 10 years. For the first time in my life, I couldn’t imagine what my future might look like.
It was terrifying and surreal, and Facebook became my lifeline to the outside world — one that I could turn on or off at any time depending on my roller coaster of emotions. As much as I appreciated the family members and friends who immediately came to my side, sometimes I just wanted to be alone and scroll through pictures and like the memories people were posting. I could hear Alex’s voice telling me to get off my phone, that I was ruining my eyes. But as I laid alone in the king-size bed he made us order for our new home, I remember thinking, “Sorry, Alex. You haven’t given me many choices.”
The first time I posted about Alex after he died, I couldn’t find any words that felt right. So I re-posted a candid picture of us from a friend’s wedding that needed no caption: We were standing in a crowded church, Alex was holding my arm, we were smiling.
Two weeks later, friends and family gathered for Alex’s memorial service at UCLA, where Alex had worked and where we met as undergraduate students. Alex always made fun of me for the number of Facebook friends I had, frequently quizzing me to find out whether they were real friends. But it was his memorial that was standing room only.
I didn’t make a speech at Alex’s memorial, but I did feel ready to write something about him on Facebook. I must have rewritten it in my head at least a dozen times: I thanked Alex for being my best friend, personal comedian, travel companion and loving husband. Hitting “post” made it feel real that Alex was gone, much like the memorial service itself. It also helped me feel more comfortable about opening up.
The love and support from family members, friends and co-workers was beyond what I could have imagined. In addition to visits, phone calls and texts, I received messages and wall posts from people, some of whom I hadn’t spoken to in years. I reconnected with a high school classmate who lost her husband about the same time, a college roommate whose father was killed in a tragic accident, and an acquaintance whose fiancé died while trying to save someone else.
I went from feeling like no one could possibly understand what I was going through as a young widow, to realizing that I knew people who were going through the same thing.
Although returning to work helped me regain normalcy, waves of grief hit me periodically. They could be spurred by a song, or nothing at all. Once, I came undone after receiving a letter from UCLA congratulating Alex for making it into a doctoral program for education. I was proud of Alex’s accomplishment, and simultaneously angry that his dream and our future had been taken away.
And although I could share it on Facebook (which I did), I needed more than neatly composed and edited status updates, which didn’t reflect the range of my emotions. I was not going to post a selfie, for instance, of me crying in my car.
So I picked up the phone, something I hated doing, and called some of the young widows who were friends of friends. I also found a bereavement group at my church.
Another source of support came via social media when Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, posted about losing her husband, Dave. Her post about the first 30 days after his death ended with a vow that she would do everything she could to “kick the s— out of option B.” I loved the raw emotion in that post, including the fact that she swore.
In my own effort to kick the s— out of Option B, I went on a spontaneous trip to Colombia with a friend. Alex had traveled there, and I wanted to visit places he had told me about. When posting about the trip on Facebook, I was concerned that people would think I was running off on a vacation with a new love interest (when it was in fact my gay best friend), so I made sure to mention that this trip was to honor Alex’s sense of adventure. When I came back, people commented about how happy I looked in the pictures, and how proud they were of me.
I try to be less self-conscious about what I post on Facebook or Instagram, as Alex was with everything in life, but it’s not easy. Sometimes I worry that people will think I moved on too fast or that I am not grieving enough. I wonder what other people will think if I change my relationship status; remove my profile picture with Alex; or go back to my maiden name (something I have been debating).
On the other hand, I worry that if I post too much about Alex, it will make people feel uncomfortable. So I try to get others involved in the remembrances. For instance, I made Alex’s birthday “Live Like Alex Day” on Facebook and challenged people to do something Alex would do. I was overwhelmed with joy when people told me they reconnected with old friends, helped a dog find its owner, or wore their rainbow sandals in his honor. Alex probably would have said he hated this, but I know secretly it would have made him smile. He did always ask how many “likes” my birthday posts about him got (375 this year, Alex).
Although I haven’t weaned myself off Facebook as much as Alex would have wanted, nine months after his death I use it less as a lifeline or an escape. Instead, it’s a way to reassure everyone that I’m okay, and that I’m living life like Alex would want me to, whether that’s trying kickboxing or going on vacation with my 1-year-old niece.
In the end, Alex and I were probably both right about social media. It will never replace in-person relationships, but it has given me a way to grieve and to celebrate Alex’s life with so many others.