Help! My Sister Keeps Posting Photos of Our Dead Father (and Tagging Me) on Social

Two siblings, two very different approaches to grief and social media. Our advice columnist has some thoughts for smoothing things over.

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I would love your perspective on navigating a tricky social media situation. My beloved dad died nearly three years ago, leaving behind a heartbroken wife and four daughters. Needless to say, we all miss him terribly. I’m having a hard time expressing the following without adding my own interpretation/judgment so I’ll just say simply that the youngest of my three sisters regularly changes her Facebook profile picture and cover photo to include images of him, and often tags other family members (including me) when she does it. Just last week, she directed a public message to me that featured a 26-year-old photo of him walking me down the aisle on my wedding day…a photo that she’s posted publicly before, more than once.

The profile/cover photo changes bug the crap out of me — they feel like outright bids for sympathy and attention — but I recognize it’s my sister’s right to do what she wants with her social media presence and I can just scroll right past anything that gets under my skin. But I feel the need for some advice about what to do about the photo tagging and public sharing of photos that include me with my dad. 

My sister and I, needless to say, approach grief differently. My way is more in line with something one of my wonderful and much-missed grandmas used to say: “I save my tears for my pillow.” Grief is very private for me. Having my sister “out” my grief, along with hers, on social media is really uncomfortable and I’d like her to stop, but I don’t know how to do that without completely offending her. I’ve tried simply ignoring the tags/posts but that just makes me feel like an unfeeling jerk — and also makes me think that people who see the posts might feel the same way if they notice I haven’t responded. What a mess!

Thanks so much for any help you can offer.

Let’s address the most obvious thing here first: OMG, typical baby-of-the-family move.

Just kidding. Who am I to condemn a good plea for attention and sympathy? As someone who is terrible at asking for what I need in most situations, I feel like if other people are able to ask for what they need and get it, more power to them. But that goes for you as well as for her.

You are doing an admirable job of trying to see things from your sister’s point of view (a favor I am not so sure she is returning – or maybe just hasn’t had the chance to return). And you are correct that how (and what) your sister shares about her grief is her prerogative. Still, where it intersects with you, it’s causing resentment whether you acknowledge it to her or not. I think that when there’s this kind of gap between what one party considers acceptable and one party does not, you’re going to have to bridge the gap somehow and the good news and the bad news is that all you have to do is say something.

READ: A Physical Space to Mourn a Virtual Friendship

But that’s hard to do, particularly with something that cuts so deep. I think that in order for your sister to best be able to hear you, you need to purge yourself of some of the anger and judgment you feel about this. It might help to consider that we don’t know for certain your sister’s reason for posting these things. When you’re in a place where you are not feeling especially angry, and you are feeling particularly good about listening to your sister, I think you should say: “Hey, I want to talk to you about something sensitive.” (And I do mean talk; I definitely do not mean email or text).

Taking your sister’s viewpoint into consideration does not mean pretending that you are ok with something that you’re not ok with, so you should follow that up with something like: some of the pictures you share of dad on social media make me feel really fill-in-the-blank (upset and blindsided, for example, or too vulnerable and exposed) and I would really love it if we could talk about it.   

And then you should go on to have a conversation that you strive to make positive and understanding and empathetic, while also sticking to your guns, because those things aren’t mutually exclusive. You should think through in advance exactly what you want (i.e. please don’t tag me, please don’t post pictures of me) because sometimes people surprise you and she might ask. When in doubt about what to say (or how to say something), it’s good to fall back on the posters that certainly were not in elementary schools in my day, about thinking before you speak and that the things you say should be: True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary, and Kind. (I am fine with you skipping inspiring).

It seems to me that your sister sending you a public message that includes a picture of you being walked down the aisle by your dad is less about getting a public response and more about getting a response from you. Which could mean that your private reaction to grief is leaving her feeling shut out. Or worried about you and how you’re coping. In which case, you should consider what your boundaries are, when it comes to talking about your grief with your sister. Spoiler alert: You still get to be private with your grief, even when it comes to family.

READ: Dead in Real Life, Alive on Twitter

Is there a chance your sister will freak out the minute you say anything? You know better than I do, but the answer is always potentially yes. So, what do you do? You can take some practical steps, like checking your settings so she can’t add things to your timeline without your consent and things like that. Or you can block her completely, but neither of these ‘solutions’ really address your problem. I would suggest you go with: “You know what, I know this is a sensitive topic for all of us, and I really don’t want it to come between us, let’s talk about it another time.” Even if your conversation doesn’t have an immediate resolution, it’s hard to imagine your sister not thinking twice before posting something with you or to you again.

Finally, no one with an ounce of sense is thinking negatively about you not responding to public posts about your dad. But if she continues to reach out to you this way you can always respond with: “Hey, sis, calling you now.”

Meg Tansey hails from New England, where talking about your feelings is frowned upon. She has lots of life experience but is not an actual therapist. Meg has a MFA from The New School and currently lives and writes in New York City. Meg is also Modern Loss’ advice columnist; send her your questions at hello@modernloss.com (subject: Ask ML).

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