Easing the Pain of Facebook Memories

How I learned to cherish Facebook memories after my daughter died.

Facebook their On This Day feature in March 2015 — a feature that automatically selects a single post from a given date and displays it in your Facebook News Feed.

At the time, my daughter was undergoing treatment for metastatic cancer which had progressed into her abdomen. She was feeling good, having stabilized (somewhat) on a targeted chemotherapy drug that she took in pill form. The drug made her anemic, turned her hair white, and destroyed her appetite, but it also kept the tumors at bay.

The fact that her cancer was stable made March of 2015 a good month for my family. But there were other positive things happening in our lives that month too.

We’d been gifted with a trip to L.A. to visit the set of New Girl, my daughter’s favorite TV show at the time. A local charity, The Maddie’s Mark Foundation, was also in the process of redoing my daughter’s bedroom. They’d timed it so that most of the work would get done while we were away on our trip, so when we arrived home, her new room would be waiting for her.

Thus, we were making (and posting) good memories that month which is probably why I didn’t give much thought to the implications of an algorithm that dips into your past and arbitrarily pulls out a memory.

In this memory from May 2009 , my daughters play on a climber at our favorite park

I can’t remember the first memories that came up after On This Day launched, but I do recall the sinking feeling some memories produced — the photos of my girls three, five, or seven years prior to March 2015 that depicted life before cancer.

My older daughter had been diagnosed in 2012, , but I’d joined Facebook in 2008 when my girls were 4 and 7. Now, suddenly, here were the various moments of my life — the Christmas mornings, first days of school, and trips to the park that I’d posted about in a bubble of clueless contentment.

Seeing photos of my once-happiness when I wasn’t expecting them had the power to send me spiraling into depression, even during a relatively happy time in my life. I knew, even then, that my time with my daughter was running out. Her cancer seemed to be chomping at the bit, continuing to grow and spread, despite all the treatment we threw at it.

I tried to minimize the memories, but there was no feature to opt out of them completely. And, in truth, some of them were welcome. By the time the Memories feature was launched, my daughter had been sick for over three years. There wasn’t a single day that I could isolate without also shuttering the good memories, so I stopped trying.

When a really bad memory popped up (e.g., the day of my daughter’s liver transplant), I ignored it, hid it, or deleted it. Thus, I made a precarious truce with Facebook’s new feature. At least, for a time. My relationship with Facebook Memories became even more complicated after on March 22nd, 2017.

My daughter on her 10th birthday in 2011

Try to picture, if you will, a box of old photos. It contains the entire history of your children, from the first ultrasounds, to the scrunchy-faced newborn shots, to the stiff, but adorable, official school photos — and every event, significant or not, in between.

Now imagine that one of your children has died.

Everything hurts — every memory, every photo, every scent that recalls something she loved, the person she was becoming, and the child she used to be. Memories, once cherished, have become tsunamis capable of sweeping you away, especially the old photos with their bright innocence.

Now imagine, as you walk through your too-quiet house with your heart aching, that someone has gone through this box and dropped random photos in your path.

Here she is on this day 7 years ago, opening her birthday presents. Here she is, on this day 2 years ago, being discharged from the hospital, all smiles. Here she is on this day, one year ago, picking out a Christmas tree with her sister. Her skin is pale, her expression sad, and in her eyes she holds the knowledge that this will be her last Christmas.

This is the Facebook I came back to after Ana died. It’s why I stopped reading my feed for months except to post photos of birds and links to essays. I was terrified of the random memories — what would Facebook show me today? It hurt too much. Everything hurt too much.

Ana in May 2013, a few months after her liver transplant

A year after Ana died, my grief had shifted to the point where I was finally ready to look at the old memories.

Many of them still hurt (many still do), but I was developing a new, otherworldly relationship with my daughter and my memories of her. I suddenly craved every single memory I could get. I wanted to recall as much as I possibly could, but my memory has never been great. Things fade away, sometimes entirely, after about eight or ten years.

Facebook had succeeded at an aspect of parenting that I’d always failed miserably at — namely, keeping a consistent record of my kids’ lives as they grew up. Ana’s baby book has exactly four pages in it — it ends before she reached six months old. My younger daughter, Emily, doesn’t even have that. Luckily, Facebook had done the work for me.

Here was a repository of my photos organized to the exact date! A few months after the one year anniversary of Ana’s death, I began actively visiting the Facebook Memories page.

Facebook launched the Memories page in , so the timing was perfect. Memories was an upgrade to the On This Day feature which already allowed users to see everything they’d posted on a given day in one place.

They added some additional features to the page including a list of people you’d friended on that day and seasonal or monthly recaps of top memories. Users can access his page by clicking the Memories link to the left of their Facebook feed.

Now I wasn’t avoiding my Facebook Memories anymore, I was actively seeking them out. I got into the habit of visiting the Memories page and downloading any photos that I’d posted of my girls on that day. I’ve done this nearly every day since June of 2018, placing the pictures into a file on my computer’s desktop.

Ana, age 12, choosing stones for skipping

I’ve been doing this every day for over a year. Now, the memories of Ana that are saved on Facebook no longer have the power to surprise me. I’ve gone in daily for sixteen months. I’m now seeing duplicates of the stuff that I’ve already downloaded.

There are no new memories of Ana anymore. While this breaks my heart in ways I can’t begin to put into words, I now view all of my memories as blessings. It’s taken me more than a year to get to this point of gratitude, to cherish the fact that I have enough photos to create an album that spans most of Ana’s life after the age of 7.

If it weren’t for Facebook, I wouldn’t have been able to do this.

Seeing a memory of Ana when I log into Facebook still has the power to derail me, but only for a second or two. I am always eager to see her face and recall, with joy, how blessed I was to have been her mother for fifteen years.

Occasional poet. Writer of sad essays. Novelist. Birder and amateur photographer. I enjoy trees.

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