Rebecca Kasten Higgins, who lost her husband in a car accident just days before her 20th birthday in 2018, maintained her status as “married” on Facebook for three years. Then he started dating someone.
“When I changed my status from ‘widowed’ to ‘in a relationship,’ I cried,” Higgins, 42, told CNN Business. Adding to the pain, she said she had to delete her previous relationship status with husband Greg to make room for the new one because Facebook only allows one relationship to appear at a time.
“Moving on with a new person doesn’t mean moving on,” she said.
For those who have spent much of their adult lives on Facebook, figuring out how to navigate their new identities as widowers and widowers on the platform can weigh as much as what they might experience with friends and acquaintances offline. Some people, for example, prefer to identify as “married” rather than “single,” a term that may not accurately reflect how they feel about themselves and may invite others to think they are dating again.
But on Facebook (FB), these changes come with additional complications due to the limited number of relationship status options available and the potential impact of changing that status on whether a wedding is depicted on the deceased’s Facebook (FB) memorial pages.
Memorial pages provide a space for friends and family to share posts about the deceased. But as I’ve experienced firsthand, setting one up is difficult. About three months after my husband, Chris, died suddenly of a heart attack while we were on vacation with our two children, I tried to remember his page. Just as I had to close bank accounts, set up funeral arrangements, and verify the will, I had to send Facebook the death certificate, birth certificate, obituary clipping, and other evidence of his death to provide a significant amount of information. to a company with a history of data privacy.
Since Chris’ death at age 39 was unexpected, he never chose a “primary contact” to oversee his page in the event of his death. Later, I nominated myself for the role (his account was still started on his phone). The process is still pending.
Although Higgins remained a contact for Greg’s estate, his decision to update his relationship status removed any mention of them being married from his memoir. For Higgins, what hurt the most was going back to the page and “seeing that I wasn’t showing up as anything in his life. At the very least, I should be listed as the wife he left behind forever.’
In March 2022, he sent a letter to Facebook asking the company to review this policy and how relationship statuses for widows are displayed. “Relationship status is a source of deep pain when a widow chooses to pursue a new relationship,” she wrote in the letter. “Please make a way for us to be connected to our deceased husband or wife and still separate the current relationship status.”
Facebook already allows users to list multiple employers on a profile or memory page and the years they worked there. Widows like Higgins are asking the company to do the same in relationship situations. (Higgins said he didn’t hear back from Facebook.)
A separate Change.org petition started in September 2021 received nearly 20,000 signatures asking Facebook to permanently retain the “widow” status and allow users to create a new relationship status if they wish. “I want to be able to honor a marriage of over 24 years, even if a new relationship has begun,” wrote Jason Thoms, who started the petition.
While the relationship status feature is limited, Facebook’s parent Meta told CNN Business that it offers other options to depict past relationships, such as updating her Major Life Events or Highlights sections with photos or important stories from her partners. Facebook also allows users to change their relationship status to “widowed” and specify a partner’s name if the partner’s account has been memorialized.
The company has not responded to criticism about how the status update affects the memorial pages.
For some like Alexandra Williams, a mother of two from Central New York, the current options aren’t enough. She said she keeps her relationship status under wraps, but is still listed as “married” to her husband, who died in 2019 at the age of 32 from an epileptic seizure.
“I didn’t want to remove the ‘married’ status, because once I did that and changed myself to single, then it would remove being tagged on my husband’s memorial page,” she said. “I’m currently with someone and they know my Facebook relationship status will always be hidden.”
Kelly Rossetto, a professor at Boise State University, said research on the impact of social media on the grieving process shows that Facebook’s function as a space for remembrance is beneficial for users. Failure to be represented on these pages may result in secondary losses for widows.
“Acknowledging our (new) relationships has become a form of social validation and can create social support for users, so being forced to choose between posting a new relationship or keeping a previous relationship can create real tension for users,” he said.
“Mourning involves giving new meaning to our relationship, not ‘closure,'” he added, “so having the opportunity to negotiate these new meanings on social media can be a positive step in encouraging healthy grieving.”
The concept of a memorial page has also taken on new importance amid the pandemic, as people have increasingly found solace in social media profiles commemorating a deceased person, according to Mark Taubert, a consultant and professor at the National Health Service at Cardiff University in the UK. specializes in bereavement, social media and end-of-life planning. But he said the tech companies behind those tools need to evolve.
“It would be difficult for many of my patients and their loved ones if they were faced with a binary choice in the future between a new partner and a deceased previous partner,” Taubert said. “I think it’s a case of social media companies having to deal with the complexities of the real world.”
While the widow community may seem niche compared to Facebook’s more than 2.9 billion monthly active users, it has likely touched the company’s C-Suite as well.
In August, former Meta COO Sheryl Sandberg, who left the company in September, married entrepreneur Tom Bernthal about seven years after the death of her husband, David Goldberg, while on vacation with her family in Mexico. Sandberg lists Bernthal as her spouse on Facebook; Goldberg’s account is a memo sheet where he lists his first six jobs. However, her page makes no reference to her being married to Sandberg.