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People who die can be virtually immortal in social media

March 19th, 2014 8:16 am by By Rick Montgomery, The Kansas City Star (MCT)

People who die can be virtually immortal in social media

The Facebook page of Bill Watkins' mother lights up at least twice a year, on her birthday and on the anniversary of her death.

She passed away three years ago last month. And it unsettles her son that Mom remains a source of delight on the social media network.

Every July 31, Facebook notifies all of her online friends, including Watkins of Kansas City, that it's her birthday. Sadly, he knows that. But many others will then post happy regards on his mother's site, addressing her as if she never succumbed to breast cancer.

"They'll say, 'Oh, remember the time we did such and such?' " said Watkins, 31, who also lost a twin brother a decade ago. "It's that public form of expressing loss that bothers me a little. It's not the way I grieve."

Loss affects everyone differently. But nobody really goes away on the World Wide Web, and that provides great comfort to many grieving families.

To others, online accounts that linger in perpetuity only serve to remind that someone dear no longer occupies the real world.

Millions of owners of active Facebook accounts are deceased. But their posts live on, either as customized memorial pages — at least 3 million of those have been set up — or as unattended remnants of a life cut short in the social network.

Immortality isn't reserved just to social media sites such as Facebook.

A typical Web user has 25 online accounts, what estate planners today call "virtual assets." They include email, blogs, online bank accounts and Pinterest files of photos.

They don't vanish when the owners die. Unless families know the usernames and passwords behind the accounts, some virtual assets could reside indefinitely in a vast cyberspace cemetery.

Such issues gained attention in February when John Berlin of Arnold, Mo., posted an emotionally raw video clip on YouTube that went viral.

He was trying to obtain personalized video clips that should have been in the account of his late son, Jesse. As part of Facebook's 10th anniversary, the network had sent automated "Look Back" clips to all active users, displaying their most popular posts.

"I'm calling out to Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook," John Berlin said. "You've been putting out these new movies, these one-minute movies that everyone's been sharing. Well, my son passed away ... and we can't access his Facebook account.

"I want to see my son's video."

His tactic worked. Facebook contacted John Berlin and then issued a statement that it would offer families of deceased users access to Look Back videos.

Facebook went on to announce changes in its policy regarding special "memorialized" pages, allowing them to be visible to everyone the user allowed access to before dying. In the company's words, privacy settings of the dead would remain "as is."

Expect more policy changes, and perhaps new state laws, as online providers struggle to address the demands of surviving loved ones — especially parents and spouses — to access accounts of the deceased.

"It's a big issue, and something worth talking about" within families before death arrives, said Michael Ong, an estate planner and lawyer in Leawood, Kan.

"When someone dies, there's a lot of confusion over who can change and control those pages" in social media and blog sites, he said. "They may have thousands of photos posted. Some may want to keep a page up. Some may want to take it down."

For one of Ong's clients, it was important not to lose a dead daughter's cellphone account, a virtual asset commonly overlooked.

The mother just needed to hear her girl's recorded voice message from time to time.

Vincent Boos' Facebook page has been maintained by friends and family since his 2008 death in a car accident.

He was 22, a gifted singer finishing his first semester as a student at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music.

"The thing that helps me the most," said his mother, Rochelle Boos of Olathe, Kan., "is when I write something on his page, it's almost as if I'm talking to him directly ... that maybe, somehow, he can see it."

Vincent Boos had shared his password and login information with one of his best pals, Tiffany Rippee. That allowed her to accept "friend requests" even after his passing. Today they number nearly 300.

Little sister Mariah Boos, also a singer, visits her brother's wall whenever she has a big performance. Just last month, Rippee posted a video clip of the upcoming TV series "Heroes Reborn." She wrote: "I wish you and I could enjoy the new episodes together. I knew you'd be super pumped by the news."

Especially for parents working through grief, the social media platforms that chronicle the users' interests and acquaintances can help keep alive memories of loved ones lost too early.

"When people post pictures that the parents have never seen before, that's the best gift that can be given," said Gay Kahler of the Johnson County chapter of the bereavement support group Compassionate Friends. "As a bereaved parent, it hurts to think you've seen all the pictures that'll ever be taken. A new one shows up, that's priceless."

It can be that way, said grief counselor Jennifer Shontz, or not.

Sometimes a Facebook friend will post a snapshot of a deceased person "not looking their best," in a hospital bed or bleary-eyed holding a cocktail, she said.

"You're getting into this whole conundrum of grief, which is so individualized, so many variables," Shontz said.


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