When his father died, Doug Anter of Royal Oak, Mich., called key family members, then put the news on Facebook.
By Christina Valhouli
LIKE many women these days, Aran Hissam, 35, of Melbourne, Fla., posted the news that she was pregnant on Facebook. On the morning of an ultrasound last year, she debated on the site whether to learn the baby’s sex, musing “to peek or not to peek?” When she failed to post an update later that day, friends started to contact her. Ms. Hissam decided to return to Facebook to share the news that her unborn baby, a girl, had been found to have fetal hydrops and given no chance of survival.
“I wanted to communicate the news to get people off my back,” Ms. Hissam said in a telephone interview recently. Although her husband was at first surprised that she would share such emotional news publicly, she said, Facebook seemed like one of the least difficult ways to get the word out.
“It was too draining to actually call everybody, because I couldn’t emotionally speak about the same thing over and over,” Ms. Hissam said, adding that she continued to post updates about her daughter, who was born at 35 weeks and lived for 15 hours, and it became a form of therapy for her.
Facebook, that repository of the mundane (mealtime updates, party reminders and job changes) that people have long used to show the positive sides of their lives, is increasingly also a place they go to break difficult news. It was where the race car driver Danica Patrick, 30, announced that she and her husband of seven years, Paul Hospenthal, 47, were “amicably” divorcing. And it is where a portrait photographer and mother of two named Alicia, 35 (who did not want her last name published because of continuing custody issues), posted a few succinct sentences about the breakup of her own marriage recently. People in her social circle were starting to hear rumors about her personal life, she said, and she wanted to address that.
“I didn’t want to start a pity party, but I did want to be honest about what was going on,” Alicia said, adding that making the announcement this way allowed her to control the message as well as avoid putting people on the spot. “One of the beautiful things about Facebook is that it’s passive communication, and it gives people freedom to respond or not in whichever way they are most comfortable.”
Posting bad news on a social media site eases the pain for the bearer of bad news and the recipient, because knowing what to say to someone who has just told you bad news can be one of the most socially fraught situations. “If you put the news on Facebook, you’re also maximizing the recipient’s comfort, so they can process the information on their own time,” said Dr. Janet Sternberg, assistant professor of communication and media studies at Ford-ham University. “It’s really hard to break bad news without crying or falling apart. But we can share painful news in less painful ways.”
Dr. Louis Manza, a professor and chairman of the psychology department at Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania, said: “From a cognitive perspective, it’s easier to deal with it this way. You post it, come back in eight hours and read all the comments that you get, and don’t have to worry about having a difficult conversation.”
Still, intimates might react poorly to finding out about delicate or tragic situations via pixels.
“Really significant news is best delivered face to face, but sometimes speed is the concern,” said Daniel Post Senning, an etiquette author and a spokesman for the Emily Post Institute. “ We’ve definitely crossed a threshold in how we use social media.”
The hand hovering ready to click the “Like” button can also create tremendously awkward situations.
“Ah, yes, the Facebook vocab challenge,” said Mr. Senning, who said it’s O.K. to “Like” negative news. “The ‘Like’ indicates an emotional connection, and indicates that you have read it.”
Doug Anter, 46, a public relations executive in Royal Oak, Mich., was hardly concerned about an excess of “Likes” when thinking about how to spread the word that his father had died in August. At the time he was also expecting his first child, so he was feeling highly emotional, and phoned key family members before ultimately putting the news about his father on Facebook.
“I could have made countless phone calls, but it was incredibly inefficient, and I would be getting very emotional each time,” he said. After he posted about his father, Mr. Anter said he felt “blessed and fortunate for the outpouring of support” that followed. But some experts think that putting bad news on Facebook almost inevitably trivializes it, to the sufferer’s further detriment.“If you post about someone’s death or your divorce, it’s not that different from typing, ‘I’m going to Starbucks,’ ” said Dr. Carole Lieberman, a psychiatrist in Beverly Hills, Calif. When someone puts bad news on social media, she said, “it’s trying to show bravado, and pretending that you’re not devastated by the news. It isn’t good because if you don’t feel the feelings, it interferes with your grief.”
Dr. Lieberman said that it is far preferable to tell people in person, as “it is very human, very real and you have to deal with your feelings.” In Pre-Facebook days, she pointed out, we all had to make 50 difficult phone calls or ask friends and family to help and we all managed to do it.