For widows on Facebook, updating relationship status is complicated

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CNN Business

After Rebecca Kasten Higgins lost her husband in a car accident a few days before their 20th anniversary in 2018, she kept her relationship status as “married” on Facebook for three years. Then she started dating someone.

“When I first changed my status from ‘widowed’ to ‘in a relationship,’ I cried,” Higgins, 42, told CNN Business. Adding to the pain, she said, was the fact she had to delete her previous relationship status with her husband, Greg, to make room for the new one because Facebook allows only one relationship to be listed at a time.

“Moving forward with a new person does not mean moving on,” she said.

For those who have spent much of their adult lives on Facebook, figuring out how to address their new identity as widows and widowers on the platform can carry a weight not unlike what they might experience with friends and acquaintances offline. Some, for example, may prefer to stay “married” rather than identify as “single,” a term that may not accurately characterize how they feel about themselves and could invite others to assume they’re looking to date again.

But on Facebook

(FB), these changes come with additional complications due to the limited number of relationship status options available and the impact that changes to this status can have on whether a marriage is represented on the deceased’s Facebook

(FB) memorial pages.

Memorial pages allow a space for friends and family to share posts about the deceased. But as I found out firsthand, setting up one is complicated. About three months after my husband, Chris, died suddenly due to a heart condition while we were on vacation with our two children, I tried to memorialize his page. Just like I had done to close bank accounts, set funeral arrangements and probate the will, I had to send Facebook the death certificate, a birth certificate, an obituary clipping and other forms of proof of his passing — a significant amount of information to provide to a company with a history of data privacy concerns.

Because Chris’s death was unexpected at the age of 39, he never chose a “legacy contact” to oversee his page should he die. I later appointed myself to the role (his account was still signed in on his phone). The process is still pending.

Even though Higgins remained Greg’s legacy contact, the decision to update her relationship status removed any mention from his memorial page that they were previously married. For Higgins, what hurt the most was going back to the page and “seeing I was no longer shown as anything in his life. At the very least, I should forever be listed as the wife he left behind.”

In March 2022, she sent a letter to Facebook requesting the company revisit this policy and how relationship statuses are displayed for widows and widowers. “The relationship status is such a source of deep pain when a widow chooses to proceed with a new relationship,” she wrote in the letter. “Please make a way for us to stay connected to our deceased, late husband or wife and still have a separate current relationship status.”

Facebook already allows users to list multiple employers on a profile or memorial page and the corresponding years worked there. Widows like Higgins are urging the company to do the same for relationship statuses. (Higgins said she did not hear back from Facebook.)

A separate petition started in September 2021 received nearly 20,000 signatures asking Facebook to retain the “widowed from” status permanently and allow users to create a new relationship status if they want. “I want to be able to honor 24+ years of marriage, even if a new relationship has begun,” wrote Jason Thoms, who started the petition.

Although the relationship status feature is limited, Facebook-parent Meta told CNN Business it offers other options to represent past relationships, such as by updating its Major Life Events or Featured sections with photos or story highlights of their partners. Facebook also allows users to change their relationship status to “widowed” and specify a partner’s name if a partner’s account has been memorialized.

The company did not respond to criticisms about how status updates impact the memorial pages.

For some like Alexandra Williams, a mother of two small children from central New York, the current options aren’t enough. She said she keeps her relationship status hidden but still listed as “married” to her late husband who died in 2019 from an epilepsy condition at age 32.

“I did not want to remove the ‘married’ status because once I did that and changed myself to single then it would remove me being tagged to my husband’s memorial page,” she said. “I am currently dating someone and they are aware that my Facebook’s relationship status will always be hidden.”

Kelly Rossetto, a professor at Boise State University, said her research about the impact of social media on the grieving process shows that Facebook serving as a space for memorialization is a benefit for users. Not being represented on these pages could create secondary losses for widows and widowers.

“Recognizing our (new) relationships has become a form of social validation and can create social support for users, so being forced to choose between posting the new relationship or keeping the former relationship could create a real tension for users,” she said.

“Grief involves making new meaning of our relationship, not ‘closing’ them,” she added, “so having the option to negotiate these new meanings on social media could be a positive step to encourage healthy grieving.”

The memorial page concept has also taken on new significance amid the pandemic, as people have increasingly found solace in online social media profiles commemorating a deceased loved one, according to Mark Taubert, a National Health Service consultant and professor at UK-based Cardiff University who specializes in grief, social media and end-of-life planning. But he said the tech companies behind these tools need to evolve.

“It would be difficult for many of my patients and their loved ones if they faced a binary choice in their future between a new partner and deceased previous partner,” Taubert said. “I think it is a case of social media companies having to catch up 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, too.

In August, former Meta COO Sheryl Sandberg, who left the company in September, married businessman Tom Bernthal about seven years after the passing of her husband David Goldberg while on vacation with his family in Mexico. Sandberg lists Bernthal as her spouse on Facebook; Goldberg’s account is a memorial page, where it lists six former places of employment. However, his page makes no reference to him previously being married to Sandberg.