Talking Point

Death by Social Media

Planting a cross
Written by Kirstie Pelling

Death by social media

Kirstie Profile SmallA few days ago, I received a strange email from my Dad. It was from his personal email account. It was unexpected. It had no subject line. It was only twelve words long. It was very direct. And it told me he was dead.

Of course receiving it was a shock. You could call it denial, but something told me it might not be genuine. It wasn’t couched in any of the soft words that come when a death is broken and spoken of. Two of the twelve words were ‘April 1st.’ And there was no signature.

I had just been reading about Google Nose and this email struck me as so unreal I figured it must be a hoax. You know, like those emails you receive when accounts get hijacked? “I lost all my credit cards when attacked by bandits in Mexico. Please send me some dollars, now?” A tasteless prank. Dead people can’t send emails.

Yet the bitter truth was my Dad was dead. This was no April Fool, rather someone’s chosen way of letting me know. It felt brutal, confusing, unfeeling, unthinking, impersonal, efficient.

Kirstie at swimming pool

Some might say the only way to reach me is by email

Technological taboo or the new normal?

Why does it seem taboo to share death in this way? We live in a technological world. Many of us share everything in our lives through our phones and laptops. I have found out married friends have split on Facebook when they changed their status to single. Family instagram photos to announce a new baby. I’ve watched some great YouTube proposals. To digital natives this is normal, it’s natural, there is no other way.

Kids using technology

Digital natives? To kids technology is normal

My relationship with my father was surprisingly technological. My parents split when I was in my early twenties and I didn’t see him for a dozen years. He remarried and we reconnected slowly, at first via letters then using email before progressing to irregular meetings and phone calls. He was never a big part of my life post divorce and email was our fragile cord. So perhaps it was a fitting medium with which to finally cut it.

“You never ever break that kind of news to someone by social media,” said a friend, firmly putting me straight. Family expressed similar views. Condolences came with protests about inhuman use of technology for personal matters. Often, ironically, from those most addicted to their handsets. Just like me.

“Just be thankful your father didn’t have a Twitter account,” said a relative with a wry smile.

A message from the other side

After the initial shock I realised I’d overlooked the strangest thing about it. I had apparently received an email from the dead.

With a little reply arrow at the top.

Could I send an email back?

Planting a cross

Perhaps emails to the other side will come to complement traditional ways of remembering

A message for the other side

In the bleak early hours, I got to thinking, could this portal still be open? Perhaps this was an opportunity; to send a reply, to say all those things that were unsaid in life, and unsay some of the things that were said.

Maybe technology wasn’t the merciless bringer of bad news. Maybe it was our last chance.

So I wrote an email to my Dad.

And then I pressed send.

I half expected a bounce back, an error, an out of office reply.

But the message went.

And the reply never came.

That’s how it is now.

Talking Points

Are we taking technology too far? Is it in danger of dehumanising us? Or is this just a very modern death? Have you ever received this kind of news by social media and what do you think about it?

Join the Conversation

Talking Point is our series of short Photo Friday posts. Each week we pick a photo and post a talking point and invite you to join the conversation. Do leave a comment with your thoughts.




About the author

Kirstie Pelling

Kirstie is the Editor of The Family Adventure Project. A professional writer and poet, she's the creative and journalistic force behind many of the stories and features published here. She's a co-founder and co-director of The Family Adventure Project and also works as the #poetinmotion producing and performing poetry for print, video and live performance.


  • It was only two weeks ago that the grandparents-in-law had been here to visit us, enjoy the time with their grandchildren until Easter. They had only been here for a couple of hours when a mobile phone call arrived, telling them my father-in-laws brother had died. On his after lunch nap. They had to take the next plane back to help the family arrange matters. To me he was a distant relative, the children were devastated mostly as the promised good time was taken from them.

    It wasn’t E-Mail, it was an international mobile phone call, with all the hurrying up and talking curt that still goes with it. In other times, it would have been a telegram, a letter, a riding messenger. The medium can be blunt, brutal and direct, but mostly it is the person behind the medium that is. I understand it was your father’s wife that sent the mail, and you probably had no real connection to her. That’s what made the message shocking more than its means, or its content.

    We made the decision long ago that people should be informed of a death as soon as possible rather than as nice as possible. We tend to forget an entire life and reduce it to the untimely moment of its end, just as our children did when in the face of death they demanded their promised fun.

    • Thanks for sharing your own experience You make an interesting point about historical means of passing on messages. Telegraphs weren’t the most chatty way of delivering news were they? Your reply is perceptive and relevant, as always.

  • What a thought provoking topic! Thomas makes a good point – it can be hard to make that call to tell people someone has died, especially someone you’re not that close to. It made me remember the difficult call to my half brother after my mum died as they werent close and I knew he wouldn’t share my pain. Email would’ve been an easy option but didn’t feel right. Would I make the same choice now? Probably. A while later I learned of the death of a friend’s wife through his Facebook status. It was a simple heartfelt statement and I realised it was a brave and sensible choice to let their wider group of contacts know but i’m sure he didnt depend on it for those closest! I feel for you getting such an odd email and its ironic it was on 1st April. With no title, I would have thought it was a hoax too.Its a good job you opened it at all and didn’t just hit delete! I do like the idea of writing an email back to him though and ok, he might not be able to write back but you know he probably still heard the message 🙂

  • The relationship really should dictate the medium. You may not have been close but I think a phone call is in order when you lose a parent. But we do have wider audiences/circles with modern communication & media so getting the word out more broadly can be done vie Facebook and email. Especially in difficult times, it keeps the bearer of the news from having to repeat it over-and-over and thus making the situation even harder. It’s like a press conference in a way. But certainly key people in your life should get the news through a more personal method. I don’t think it’s really dehumanizing us, just getting the word out through modern means… like your commenter above said, an email is essentially the modern version of a telegram.

    Thanks for sharing… lots of food for thought in how and what we share in our own lives. -V

    • I know..if it’s an untimely death I imagine that telling it over and over again must be shattering. Thanks for joining in the debate. Appreciated.

  • Maybe I’m old fashioned but I find it rather bizarre to announce a death of a close family member by email. A phone call or a face to face meeting might have made it more personal. We may live in a world of technology but I do think people take that a little too far sometimes. There is nothing wrong with a written letter, a phone call or a sit down chat over coffee, yet so many feel they have no time. I guess it’s a very personal thing and only you will now how you truly feel about it.

    CJ x

    • It was a real shock at the time, and I’m more philosophical about the whole thing now a bit of time has passed, but I still don’t feel it was very appropriate. And I’ll think twice when I’m delivering any kind of news now! Thank you for your support

  • In fact I’ll go beyond the immediate question and say that we should be thinking twice about using email for much more than death notifications.

    My husband and I have been noticing how many family communications – like about my mother’s developing dementia, or being missed at a family gathering we couldn’t attend – are now emails.

    What happened to picking up the phone and talking? What hard conversations are we missing? What added, subtle connections are lost?

    Email has become a convenient way of avoiding sticky situations that require us to listen and respond in the moment. Certainly there are times I don’t want to deal with someone so I’ll send an email. But I’m pinching myself, trying to remind myself of the things we miss by depending on this convenience.

    Thank you for sharing this personal story.

    • It’s wierd isn’t it. I often convince myself that I don’t do the phone, only e-mails. But then when I actually speak to someone on the phone I always feel glad that I did. Particularly in that sticky situation you talk about where an e-mail can be misinterpreted. Human contact has to be the best, particularly when delivering such personal information. If not face to face at least by voice.

      But social media does have its place in how we relate to each other and I don’t think that’s going to change. Here I am sharing this online, and feeling the benefit of your support. And quite often a stranger randomly makes me laugh out loud with their news delivered in 140 characters. I have to say that no one has made me cry on Twitter yet, but give it time!

  • […] Our Big Ticket family pass for Blackpool offered entry into Madame Tussauds. I’d never been to a waxworks before so we popped in for the chance to get up close and personal with some old and new celebrities. But while the waxy celebrity exhibits were undeniably lifelike and entertaining, to me they were also missing one vital ingredient; life. But then, that kind of thing was on my mind…  […]

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Follow Us

We're Kirstie & Stuart. We share an adventurous spirit, a passion for indie travel and 3 kids. The Family Adventure Project is our long term experiment in doing active, adventurous things together. Find out more...


Trips100 - Travel Blogs   Trips100

© Copyright: Stuart Wickes & Kirstie Pelling 2000-2018