This article appears in March/April Family magazine
If social media is like a living organism, what happens to it after we die?
“From a logistical standpoint it’s necessary to think about, but also from an emotional standpoint,” said Elizabeth Eddy, co-founder and CEO of Lantern, a free, digital source of guidance for navigating life before and after a death.
It can be very triggering for people to get a Facebook notification to send birthday wishes or a LinkedIn message to celebrate a work anniversary for someone who has died, Eddy said.
People in a pre-planning process, such as the terminally ill, may be thinking about their digital legacies, but most of us are probably not, said Eddy, who speaks from experience.
When her grandmother passed away, “it was a little bit like a scavenger hunt” trying to figure out passwords and gain access to accounts.
Because our digital lifestyles are so new they can be difficult to manage after death.
“It can be a huge headache and time suck for a loved one who is grieving,” Eddy said.
Since death is coming for us all, it’s better to be prepared. Start by creating a list of all known accounts. The easiest way is to keep a day-to-day list of the accounts you use and to look through credit card statements to see what accounts are connected to them, Eddy said.
Then use a password manager like LastPass, 1Password or Bitwarden to create strong and secure passwords for every site and app.
Next, appoint a digital executor, someone who is given all passwords for social media and email accounts, Eddy said. That includes things like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, but also financial accounts like Venmo and PayPal, your Amazon music library, frequent flier miles, professional organizations like LinkedIn and even dating sites, Eddy said.
“A digital executor can manage all the accounts and make sure assets go to the right place,” said Eddy, who advised choosing a close friend rather than a parent, child or spouse. A close friend will not be stressed with typical after-death decisions and may be in a better space to read personal posts and messages.
Dealing with the issue after a death is more complicated. Start with email since that account is usually connected to major social media platforms, Eddy said. If you can access a deceased loved one’s email you may be able to deactivate accounts yourself without going through customer service, which will save time and trouble.
Close the email account last to watch out for any notifications of use, Eddy said.
Look for accounts by Googling a name plus “Facebook,” “Twitter” or other account name, Eddy said.
When it comes to shutting down social media sites, it can be harder than closing a credit card, Eddy said.
“There’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Every company has its own structure. Be prepared to fill out forms and provide documents like obituaries or death certificates,” she said.
In the window of time after a death, families are at high risk of fraud. Managing online accounts offers a layer of protection.
“Pay attention to any unusual activity. When obituaries are made public, accounts become vulnerable,” Eddy said.
Consider memorializing a loved one. Both Facebook and Instagram offer options to preserve and share memories, as do sites like GatheringUs and Forever Missed.