Monday, February 28, 2011

Birthday etiquette for those without birthdays

Yesterday was my Aunt Ann's birthday. She would have turned 50, except she passed away two weeks ago after battling cancer for years.

I wouldn't have remembered her birthday except that I got a reminder on Facebook saying that it was coming up. Her Facebook page is still active and her family is filling it with memories of Ann. A couple of weeks ago they used it as a forum to inform people of her wake and funeral.

I wrote something on her wall to let her family know that I was thinking of her on this day. And then I scrolled through the rest of the messages.

There were others who acknowledged that they, like me, were remembering her memory:
"You would've been 50 today. I am missing my friend."

"Best wishes to you in your new home in heaven, Ann, on what would have been your birthday."
And then there were these posts:
"Happy birthday, Ann! I hope you have a great day!"

"Wow - 50! Congratulations on a milestone!"
Did they really not know? How insensitive is this to the family, who is clearly maintaining her page to keep her memory alive just for a bit longer? How awful to wish a happy birthday to a person who no longer has one.

Certainly, social media has changed the way we interact with each other. For some it has expanded our circle of friends, deepened our relationships and introduced us to people we never would have met. For others, it has allowed us to hide behind computer screens, to avoid meeting with people face-to-face and keep us isolated.

But would a situation like this have ever happened before? Perhaps the family would have gotten one or two birthday cards for her from people who truly hadn't known. But Facebook makes it so easy to give casual wishes; her wall was deluged. And how sincere can they really be - they didn't know she had died.

It's a new twist to the hardship families need to go through when loved ones pass on: pay the medical bills, get the catalogs and  mail stopped, and inform the virtual world.

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