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First person

Running into mom's social media ghost

I'm forced to confront my grief every time I'm connected to WiFi – and it's helping me cope, Celeste Robitaille writes

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

"Do you know Teresa?" LinkedIn lovingly asked me, while recommending the profile of a beautiful, blonde-haired, green-eyed, older woman. I laughed, but if I hadn't been raised to appreciate dark humour I may have cried.

Well, maybe despite my appreciation, I did cry. My mother passed away July 5, 2015, but of course LinkedIn would have no way of knowing that, especially since my family hasn't disengaged any of her social media accounts. My mother's social media ghost and I have had similar run-ins on Facebook ("Teresa's birthday is coming up – plan a get together!"), but none of our previous encounters had seemed so hilariously absurd.

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As a millennial, I've lived most of my late-teen and young-adult life on the grid. And so, I find myself living and experiencing my grief within the context of the world that I exist in. I posted about my mother's funeral arrangements on Facebook; I uploaded a picture of her blowing out candles on what would have been her 62nd birthday on Instagram; I have even retweeted the profanity-laced cancer charity hashtag on Twitter.

The choice to imprint glimpses into the depth and breadth of my grief on my followers has often weighed on me. Before each post I feel conflicted and self-conscious about whether I want to let "the world" (hardly) in on what feels most personal to me. I have the dichotomous urge to prove to everyone that I am strong and doing well, while simultaneously wanting them to know that my heart is broken and full of grief that is deep, heavy and born of pure love.

Social media has allowed others to bear witness to my grief, which is a significant aspect of grieving in general. Posting on social media has acted as an uncomfortable reminder to those who follow me (sorry, by the way) that my world has been turned upside-down, and that the emotions associated with that are very raw and pretty crummy.

But while social media has allowed me to express my grief, it has also provided me with a series of prompts, triggers and reminders that have forced me to confront my grief at any moment that I am connected to WiFi. It would seem that the ghosts of loved ones passed, in this 21st century of ours, haunt the timelines and newsfeeds of our online profiles. I have often been left feeling that Mark Zuckerberg and his algorithm are playing a practical joke on me.

While I moved numbly through my first year of grief I noticed Facebook's "On This Day" function would frequently feature pictures of my mother and I, often with captions like "We didn't want you to forget!" (as if I ever could). When we reached the first anniversary of her death, this algorithm kindly reminded me of it (as if I wasn't acutely aware). To this day, despite the inactivity of her Gmail account for two and a half years, our chat icon is the only one that sits in my toolbar, listing her status as "inactive" most of the time (as if I didn't already know).

Ultimately, I don't think I can exclusively blame Zuckerberg for these seemingly serendipitous online grief triggers. Sure, my family could take it upon ourselves to shut down her e-mail, Facebook and LinkedIn accounts, but in some way, allowing her online ghost to continue to exist also allows my mother's memory to take up real space in a culture that typically denies death, dying and grief outright. To scrub the internet clean of any trace of my mom's life feels a bit like denying she ever existed.

I'm not sure that my father – being from a different generation – would agree with this. I sense that it is his inclination to close these accounts out of respect for her. I can appreciate that, but at the same time the e-mails she sent, the posts she made on Facebook, and even her network on LinkedIn all provide insight into who she was, how she thought and the experiences she had. These dormant accounts are proof that she existed in the 21st century and participated in its online culture.

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The ongoing trend in social media has been to dedicate sweet, sentimental posts on any special holiday or event; anything from Christmas to National Puppy Day can flood my timeline with photos of loved ones. I feel a particular sting on Mother's Day when pictures of beautiful mothers with their beautiful children are captioned with anything along the lines of "I don't know what I'd do without you, Mom [heart emoji flower emoji kiss emoji]". There was once a time in my life when I also had the privilege of wondering this same thought. I still think this thought, and still have no real answer.

None of this is to say that I don't want my friends to post pictures of their loved ones or that I want to delete any of my own social media accounts (and then what – play Minesweeper?). To navigate grief and mourning in the dawn of social media certainly feels complicated and uncomfortable, but then I imagine that grieving and mourning have always felt that way regardless of your generation.

There is no way to go over, under, between or around grief; you can only go through it, and part of that for me has been submitting to the realities of living my life on the grid. Does it make me sad sometimes to see my mom's dormant online profiles floating through my newsfeed? Yes. Is it perhaps part of my grieving process to face these 21st-century ghosts? I'm not as sure about this answer. The fact of the matter is that I'm living it, facing each encounter (and notification) with the hope that it plays a role in guiding my grief to settle into a cozy place in my heart. As I wait for that day, I'm happy to continue seeing my mom in my dreams, in my memories and every so often, even on my timeline.

Celeste Robitaille lives in Oakville, Ont.

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