It was two weeks before Christmas in 2012, and Brittney Bonner was going to stay home with her mother, Cristal White-Bonner. But Brittney was 16 and, like a typical teenager, she changed her mind. A bunch of her friends were having a bonfire up on Kentuck, and there were few things Brittney loved more than a bonfire with friends.
So she said her goodbyes and was gone.
Around 11:30 that night, White-Bonner heard a crash.
"It was a terrifying sound," White-Bonner remembered recently, "never knowing it was my child."
Brittney was a passenger in a truck that struck a tree doing 70 mph. The gas cans that had been used for the bonfire exploded. Brittney died instantly, five minutes from home.
When her mother arrived at the scene, firefighters had just extinguished the blaze.
Brittney, who was a sophomore at Oxford High School, dreamed of working with foster children.
"The world lost an awesome person the day she died," White-Bonner said. "She was the loudest, funniest person I knew. She always told me to be strong."
As news spread, many of Brittney’s friends took to Facebook to express their shock and sorrow, and to share stories about a young woman whose life was cut short.
Many friends went to Brittney’s own Facebook page, to post words of love and sadness that Brittney would never read. But her mother, dealing with an impossible grief, could.
"When I visited her page, there were tons of posts from everyone, (writing) how they would miss her and couldn't believe it was her; how they loved her and would always remember her," White-Bonner said.
In the digital age, social media is changing the way we grieve.
A chance to say goodbye
Tim Doyle didn’t believe he was going to die.
He had just finished playing Elwood in a production of "Harvey" at the Theatre of Gadsden when he started having stomach trouble.
At first, Doyle, a local pharmacist and respected community theater actor, assumed it was nerves or the flu. But one day, he became so weak driving to work that he went to the emergency room instead. Eventually, Doyle was diagnosed with cancer.
On Jan. 29, 2011, after one of the biggest roles of his career, Tim Doyle died. For friends of the man who dreamed of getting a job at the Walgreens in Times Square so that he could audition for plays in New York City, it was a shock.
Pati Tiller, who’d met Doyle through Community Actors’ Studio Theatre (CAST) and worked with him on several plays, posted some of her feelings, first on the CAST Facebook page and later on Doyle’s personal page.
"I loved him, and I was hurting," Tiller said. "I wanted somewhere to channel my grief and pain. I wanted the whole world to know how much we — I — loved this funny, caring, obsessive, talented man that should never be forgotten."
Tiller’s reaction is not uncommon in the digital age, according to Tommy Turner, professor of counselor education and associate dean of the School of Education at Jacksonville State University.
"My particular knowledge and experience regarding social media and the grief process is positive," said Turner, who specializes in grief counseling.
"First, social media — and I am speaking primarily of Facebook — provides a platform for sharing information," Turner said. This can be anything from funeral arrangements to memories of the deceased.
It’s also important for those facing the loss of a loved one to have an outlet for their grief. "It is commonly understood that the recounting of special memories often assists the grieving," Turner said. "Social media can provide that platform, to both share and to read."
Facebook, especially when a death is sudden, gives those left behind a chance to say goodbye, to "finish unfinished business," Turner said.
"A social media site may give the grieving an opportunity to actually say — to put into words — things they wish they could say to the departed," he said. "This practice — writing a letter to the deceased, visiting the gravesite and speaking aloud to the departed — has been recognized as a healthy process."
Brittney Bonner’s friends and family celebrate her birthday and the anniversary of her death with a "huge" bonfire because they believe that’s what she would want. On those long days in between, her mother will occasionally visit her daughter’s Facebook page.
"Social media helps me a little because I get to talk with her friends and … look back on good times we shared," White-Bonner said. "Losing a child is the worst pain I've ever experienced, and I wouldn't wish it on anyone. But I will always keep Brittney’s memory alive."
Contact Brett Buckner at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What happens to Facebook profiles after death?
More than 10,000 Facebook users die every day. Since it was launched eight years ago, more than 30 million Facebook users have died, according to calculations by Nate Lustig, the founder of Entrustet, an online company that helps people access and delete online accounts after someone dies.
In 2015, Facebook changed its policy to allow users in the U.S. to choose a "legacy contact" to make a final post after a loved one’s death. That contact can respond to new friend requests, update the cover photo and profile, and archive Facebook posts and photos. The change came after Facebook fielded hundreds of thousands of requests since it began memorializing pages in 2007.
Members can look under settings to choose a legacy contact to manage the account, opt to have the account deleted permanently after death, or do nothing.
Friends or family can report a death through an electronic form at the online Facebook Help Center. Once Facebook is notified of a death and confirms it, Facebook will add the tagline "Remembering" over the user’s name and notify the legacy contact.
Previously, only the living user of a registered account was allowed to access their profile, unless someone else knew the password.
For the most part, Facebook remains hands-off with user profiles, unless they are notified that a member is deceased, at which time the profile becomes "memorialized."
Memorials can only be found by people who were already friends with the deceased, and the "tag a friend" and "people you may know" features are disabled.
Several parents contacted for this story refused to comment for fear of Facebook learning of their child’s death and thus turning their pages into memorial pages without their permission.
"It’s a way of keeping him alive," said one mother. "I can go to his page, see those pictures, and it helps me to remember how he was. It makes things … easier."
— Brett Buckner