Until recently, Facebook was a foe to the bereaved, a glib and indomitable reminder of the “Friend” that was no longer.
When my dad died, the social network taunted me with his absence, dangling his online presence before me unprompted, like a digital mirage. Facebook was a bumptious acquaintance blissfully unaware of his passing, suggesting I invite him to events and wish him a happy birthday. Particularly disturbing was its “Your Year In Review” feature, which pummeled me with a barrage of “Memories” from the most traumatic time in my life, algorithmically organized into a short, schmaltzy video.
For people grieving, Facebook was not a supportive space but a potential minefield, where you could be tricked into almost thinking your person was still alive, just a mere “Poke” away. Yet the social media service seems to be making up for past harm with its new series “Sorry for Your Loss,” the first four episodes of which are now available on Facebook Watch.
The drama follows recently widowed Leigh Shaw, played with barbed intensity by Elizabeth Olsen, as she navigates a world she never wanted to inhabit ― one without her husband, Matt (Mamoudou Athie). The humdrum tasks of her everyday life transform into a labyrinth of intolerable agonies, where any unassuming incident can trigger memories of life before. Leigh’s life has been sapped of its color and juice and so has she, leaving her roaming, zombielike, through her responsibilities and relationships, embittered and inconsolable.
Trying their best to help are Leigh’s mother, Amy (Janet McTeer) ― lover of mantras and believer in inner children ― and sister Jules (Kelly Marie Tran), a reformed party girl who became sober after Matt’s death. Leigh parries their empathy and advice with fury and icy indifference, though she reserves her harshest brickbats for Matt’s brother Danny (Jovan Adepo), who’s convinced his loss is more traumatic than hers.
The show moves at a sedate pace and often flashes back to Leigh’s memories from the time before her own personal apocalypse. While at first Leigh and Matt ― a gentle comic book nerd ― appear to have the perfect relationship, each episode digs deeper into the chasm between them, prodding at the things Leigh never knew about her partner.
In its best moments, “Sorry” critiques a culture that both fetishizes and willfully ignores tragedy, often subbing out authentic human interaction for cookie-cutter platitudes and shallow social conventions.
“I hate it when people tell me I’m in their prayers,” Danny tells Leigh one night, over doughnuts.
“I hate how in the beginning everyone wants to send you flowers and donate to, like, a foundation for your dead person,” Leigh says. “And they stop calling and writing and doing nice things for you because they’re over it, and they expect you to be over it.”
“I hate it when people ask me if I was close to my brother,” Danny responds. “I feel like they’re trying to decide how sorry they have to feel for me. And they want me to say ‘not close,’ as if that would make it better.”
Though the show doesn’t address it, I wonder how many of such trifling interactions play out on Facebook, where deceased users are now marked as such by the word “Remembering” inserted before their names.
“Sorry” will likely induce snotty, wheezy, gasp-for-air sobs. But unlike the pathos-heavy logic of weepy tragedy porn like “This Is Us,” here, the misery is in the minutiae, not the melodrama. The show moves in hiccups rather than grand swells, showing no signs of cloud-parting resolutions or post-mortem meaning-making. Leigh’s brittle state shows few signs of softening.
Even more surprising than the fact that one of fall’s most compelling TV shows is streaming on Facebook is the community it has engendered. The series’ formatting on Facebook Watch is hardly distinguishable from the videos that pop up on your feed. Beneath the video player, hundreds of “Likes,” “Loves” and teary emojis denote viewers’ reactions.
More extensive opinions are provided to the right, in the comments. Unlike the caustic stupidity endemic to most comments sections, this thread is filled with heartfelt expressions of gratitude along with anecdotes of people’s own experiences with grief. The comments’ genuine sentiments are somewhat unusual in themselves, given their Facebookian context. Far stranger, however, is the fact that the show comments back.
“Thank you for giving us a peek into your past, Aliece,” the “Sorry for Your Loss” Facebook group responds to one woman’s reflection. “We’re so touched to have you here with us!”
“Grief can certainly be debilitating, Dona,” the show consoles. “Just remember that you’re not going through this alone.”
No two responses are alike, giving the impression that “Sorry for Your Loss” really cares. “That’s the thing, Enid. We all have to show up for ourselves, but that doesn’t mean we can’t come together for each other. Welcome to Sorry For Your Loss.”
Sometimes, the show invites a Facebook user into a more extended exchange. When one woman wrote that her grandma liked to sing, the show replied: “What a sweet memory! What was her favorite song to sing?”
“Sorry” offers not only a platform on which users can grieve, but a disembodied voice to console them. Binge-watching TV already makes fictional characters feel like true-life confidants. “Sorry” ups the ante, offering intimate relationships not only with its characters but also with the whole show, as if it were a nebulous digital angel typing directly to you from on high.
The configuration’s unlikely sweetness only contributes to its dystopian aftertaste. Are there truly so few spaces to discuss death that Facebook offers the most tempting arena?
Affixed to the series is a closed “Sorry for Your Loss” Facebook group, which people must request to join by expressing where they turn for comfort in times of need and why they’re excited about the show. The group functions as part fan club, part grief group, with users reacting to the show’s plot points and characters while sharing photos and memories of people they’ve lost.
When requesting to join the group, I, despite my cynicism and unease at the whole situation, shared an earnest memory of coping with my dad’s death. My distrust of the tech overlords assuring me that I’m not alone paled in comparison to the overwhelming urge to share my pain.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Facebook ― which has writhed its way into the DNA of our daily lives ― should so effectively offer comfort when humans so often fail to. What else knows so much about our intimate lives, interpersonal circles and quotidian habits?
“Sorry for Your Loss” will undoubtably trigger your tear ducts, but as for the uncanny community sprouting around it, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Facebook is trying to make up for its past habit of haunting grieving users by offering copious comfort, support and a safe space. As “Sorry” told one Facebook user: “Thanks for joining us on this journey.”
Both postures reveal the tremendous influence the platform has over our most personal and painful life experiences, one abrasively bumbling and the other eerily superhuman. I’m not sure which I prefer.