I Asked Grief Counselors if I Should Unfollow My Dead Friend on Facebook—Here's What They Said
Seeing the notifications from her page always upsets me, but it doesn't feel right to click the unfriend button.
Each year, throughout the year, I get notifications from my high school friend Kelsey's Facebook page. She died nearly five years ago on September 20, 2015.
Whenever one of those messages pops up—usually on her birthday, at Christmas, and especially on the anniversary of her death—I go back to the day she died. It was an unremarkable Sunday for me, laying in bed watching TV in my tiny New York apartment; but 2,700 miles across the country in Seattle, Kelsey was boarding a boat with her friends on Lake Washington.
She was new to the city, and, from what I knew about Kelsey, it was the perfect way for her to get acquainted with her new home (she was always adventurous and a champion sailor). But when her boat hit choppy waves and high winds, it capsized and dragged her under. Kelsey was under water for six minutes before harbor patrol pulled her out, performed CPR, and took her to the hospital. She died shortly after getting there.
I assume when others see those posts from Kelsey's page, they think of fond memories of their friendship with her—but every time I get a new notification, I imagine how terrified she must have been when she realized she was trapped underneath her boat, unable to reach the surface. And because of that, every time, my finger hovers over the "unfriend" button.
I always pull my hand back, of course. Even though I hate reliving that daydream, it feels wrong to unfriend her; disrespectful to her memory and the friends and family who were close to her. Writing those thoughts down, however, I'm struck by how silly they sound: Kelsey, unfortunately, will never know that I unfollowed her; and most of her friends and family don't know me. But according to grief counselors, the mental gymnastics I put myself through are totally normal.
"Guilt is a natural part of the grieving process," Adam Lukeman, LCSW, a psychotherapist in New York, tells Health. "Most people will find something, even if not rational, to feel guilty about." For me, I think the guilt of wanting to unfriend Kelsey comes from a subconscious wish to avoid any reminders that Kelsey was once part of my life and that she died in this horrible, tragic way. I want to forget, and that feels like a terrible thing to admit.
But sometimes, no matter how terrible it sounds, unfollowing the social media accounts of someone who died may be the best thing for a grieving person to do, especially if it feels triggering to you. "If unfollowing feels like a good boundary for you to set to help maintain your mental health, then it sounds like a good way of taking care of yourself," Karen Goldman, LMHC, founder of Emma's Place, a grief and loss center in Staten Island, tells Health.
According to grief counselors, reminders of an acquaintance or friend's death after a few years have gone by can be especially jarring—mainly because you aren't prepared for them. "You are going to have that kind of shock reaction because you're not expecting it," Diane Brennan, LMHC, a grief counselor in New York, tells Health.
That feels especially true in my case—I wasn't as close to Kelsey as others were; I didn't go to her funeral, and I didn't spend much time thinking about my own grief when I heard she died. And according to Brennan, that may be why the anniversary of her death always feels so shocking to me: Because, when we're on the outer rim of a person's life, we likely haven't processed our grief in the same way as those who were close to the person.
Some of the guilt associated with wanting to unfollow a dead friend or family member may also be connected to unprocessed grief, or unresolved issues with the person in question. "Are you feeling guilty because you feel you are doing something 'wrong' based on what other people are telling you?" Goldman asks. "Are you feeling guilty because of something that occurred in the relationship between you and your loved one that died? Are you feeling guilty because unfollowing the person is actually a way of avoiding your grief rather than dealing with it?"
For me, part of my guilt might come from never truly realizing my feelings for Kelsey until after her death. (Looking back, I see now that Kelsey was one of my first crushes—though I wasn't even out to myself at the time.) And while it's natural to want to avoid the painful feelings seeing posts on your dead loved one's social accounts can bring up, giving yourself time to reflect on and engage with your grief can alleviate some of your pain and allow you to start remembering joyful memories, Brennan says.
Brennan told me that before I choose to unfollow Kelsey's account forever—or before anyone chooses to unfriend a loved one who has died—to take the baby step of muting, snoozing, or hiding posts from her page. "See how it feels to snooze the page, and if it feels like the right thing, unfollowing is a good next step," she says.
And if your unfollowing guilt is coming from worries about what other people will think of you, realize that is a form of distorted thinking, Lukeman says. You're essentially comparing your own grief to others'. "Because everybody responds differently to grief, such comparisons can often cause distress," he says. Wanting to unfollow the account of a loved one who died doesn't make you any less strong than someone else, and it doesn't mean that you're not grieving hard enough or not respecting your loved one's memory.
In the end, choosing whether or not to unfollow someone who died is personal, but there's no reason you should feel guilty if it's the best thing for you. For now, I'm choosing to keep following Kelsey. And the next time I see a post from her page, I'll follow Brennan's advice to move past the pain and find the joy underneath.
How to Be OK When You're Not OK Check out Health's special series on life after loss.