In 2001, a friend who was terminally ill asked me to interview her for a video to leave behind for her infant daughter.
My friend was barely 30, but she knew that time was running out. Her hope was that she could answer some of the questions her teenage daughter might one day ask. She was buoyed by the project, smiling and full of little jokes, but it was an emotional day for all of us. For two hours, I asked her everything I could imagine a grown daughter might want to know about her mother.
Ten years later, I visited my friend’s daughter, who was now 11. We sat down in her grandmother’s living room and together watched that video of her mother. It was the first time I’d seen it, and I fought tears through much of it, but her daughter couldn’t stop smiling. Every time her mother mentioned her name, she turned to me and giggled. She was only 20 months old when her mother died, but she knows the sound of her voice and has memorized her every gesture. It’s something, that video. To that young girl, it’s everything.
We seldom know the ultimate deadline for our lives. Most of us try not to think about it. Facebook has made denial a bit harder with a new application that allows members to record or write their final messages, which will be posted after they die.
In true American fashion, the app is titled “If I Die.” Not when. If. I am reminded of an Irish doctor at the Cleveland Clinic who once told me, with a wry smile, “In America, death is an option.”
Facebook’s “If I Die” promotional video features a male British voice ominously cautioning that when it comes to end-of-life messaging, stalling can be dicey.
“Last words — we all hope we’ll get a chance to say some. But not knowing when or where we’re going to die makes it a bit tricky. … Don’t wait until it’s too late. Leave your message today. It can be a bid farewell, a favorite joke, a long-kept secret, an old score you wanted to settle or even some valuable advice.”
Users appoint three friends, or “trustees,” who are charged with verifying your death to Facebook, thus triggering the posting of your final words. In 2012, though, it’s a logical next step in the virtual communities we’ve built on the Web.
If you have an account on Facebook — and more than 800 million people reportedly do — you are likely to come across pages of friends who have died. In the five years since I’ve joined Facebook, several friends and acquaintances have passed. It has been quite moving, in the wake of their deaths, to read page after page of posts on their Facebook walls from friends and family members. Slowly, a narrative builds, full of stories about the person who died and feelings of loss and regret. I have found myself wishing for one last status update from the dearly departed.
I asked my own Facebook community what they would write for their “If I Die” messages. The responses were sometimes humorous but often thoughtful, too, and occasionally confessional. A number of people admitted a reluctance to erase messages — voice or email — from loved ones who have departed.
“I have kept emails from my mother, who died in 2008 at 63,” Darlene Duff Schuh wrote. “They are the day-to-day emails of what’s for dinner, how many minutes she did on the treadmill, what she ironed but I can’t bring myself to delete them. One time at work I looked at a few, and broke down crying, because the animated smileys in her email were still winking and smiling at me, and blowing me kisses, long after she cannot.”
How we long to hear from those we’ve lost.
I don’t know whether I’ll download the Facebook app, but it did get me to thinking about that final message, should I depart without warning. I’ll keep it short.
To my family: I’m sorry I didn’t get through all the boxes in the basement. Please burn the journals.
To my kids: Take credit for everything you liked about me.
To my husband: I died in love.
To my fellow humans: You’re worth the effort, every last one of you.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine. She is the author of two books, including “…and His Lovely Wife,” which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate. To find out more about Connie Schultz (firstname.lastname@example.org) and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate
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