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Turning to social media to share news of death

A text sent to the families of passengers on the lost Malaysia Airlines flight has many questioning the use of social media to break the news of someone’s death.

Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff

Benita Gold has started checking Facebook more often because she had missed news of the death of two friends.

As the owner of her own PR firm, Benita Gold needs to keep current, but even so, she often can barely bring herself to scroll through her Facebook page. “What’s more boring than hearing about someone else’s trip?” she said by way of explanation.

A family member of passengers on the lost Malaysia Airlines flight.

Andy Wong/AP Photo

A family member of passengers on the lost Malaysia Airlines flight.

But Gold, of Belmont, changed her Facebook habits for perhaps the saddest of reasons: She missed not one, but two posts reporting the deaths of close friends. “That’s where people go to share news like that now,” she said. “I couldn’t make it to one of the funerals because I learned about it too late.”

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At a time when people are increasingly posting personal medical diagnoses on social media and texting reports from the emergency room in real time, news of life’s final status update has also started arriving via group e-mail, Facebook, and text, to the horror of some, and the approval, or at least the acceptance, of others.

And with this trend is coming a kind of evolving etiquette for which platform should be used by whom and for what. Last month’s Malaysia Airlines events serve as a case in point.

For the most part, the news of a death is still delivered to families personally. But Malaysia Airlines put expediency over social norms when it texted already distraught and angry relatives a grim message: “Malaysia Airlines deeply regrets that we have to assume beyond a reasonable doubt that MH370 has been lost and that none of those on board survived,” the March 24 message read.

“A friend just posted that her dog passed away, and another friend posted that her grandmother died. It’s impersonal, but everybody’s busy doing something,” Sabrina Brock said.

Laurie Swope for The Boston Globe

“A friend just posted that her dog passed away, and another friend posted that her grandmother died. It’s impersonal, but everybody’s busy doing something,” Sabrina Brock said.

Danica Weeks, wife of a one of the passengers, captured the overwhelming sentiment of the relatives, and indeed the world, with her cry during a television interview in March. “This is my husband, my loving husband, father of my children, and you send me a text message?” she asked.

The airline said it resorted to text only when it couldn’t otherwise immediately reach relatives, but many say there was no excuse.

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“Texting is probably the lowest common denominator of human interaction,” said Rebecca Soffer, a cofounder of Modern Loss , a website that describes itself as “a place to share the unspeakably taboo, unbelievably hilarious, and unexpectedly beautiful terrain of navigating your life after a death. Beginners welcome.”

“I had such a disgusting pit in my stomach when I heard they texted,” said Soffer, whose mother was killed in a car accident when she was 30, and whose father died of a heart attack on a cruise to the Bahamas four years later. (She learned of her mother’s death over the phone, and her husband delivered the news about her father.)

In addition to being cold, texts can arrive when the recipient is in public, said Soffer. “You have no idea what the person is doing on the other end. They could be having a meeting with their boss, and they get a ping or a text alert that someone they love has died.”

Many family members of passengers on the missing Malaysia Airlines flight were upset when the airline sent a text about the fate of their loved ones.

Adrian Bradshaw/EPA

Many family members of passengers on the missing Malaysia Airlines flight were upset when the airline sent a text about the fate of their loved ones.

Within the innermost circle of friends and family the choice of how bad news gets disseminated is an individual decision, depending often on factors of urgency and geography.

But when companies, institutions, or other outsiders find themselves having to break the news as personal an approach as possible is best — police and fire departments, for instance, typically send a representative.

The rules are different for less-intimate relationships. Frequently larger groups of friends or extended family share bad news about the passing of lesser acquaintances by Facebook, e-mail — and, yes, even text.

Gretchen Duhaime, a consultant from Belchertown, said her mother recently texted her that “so-and-so died.” “It wasn’t jarring at all. That’s just how we catch up on things now. I shared the news that one of my friend’s moms had passed away that way.”

Etiquette expert Jodi R.R. Smith, of Mannersmith , says that there are times when using social media is “perfectly appropriate.”

“For example, the person has been declining for a long time, and a last visit has already transpired, and you know it is just a matter of time.”

But, she added, if the death is unexpected, “a text asking that the person call you immediately is much more appropriate.”

At some point in the future, of course, dilemmas over the correctness of texting or Facebooking news of a death may seem quaint, the way past methods of passing along news do today: the black-rimmed envelope, the tolling of bells, the black badge, or wreath on the home of the person who’s died.

But even as people begin to accept texting and social media’s growing role, discomfort over how to respond appears rooted firmly in the past.

When Sabrina Brock, of Marblehead, recently logged onto Facebook and saw that the mother of a Facebook friend had died, she couldn’t bring herself to hit “Like.” (And despite widespread public longing, a Facebook spokesman says the company has no plans to add a “sympathize” button.)

“But I did make a comment saying ‘I’m so sorry for your loss,’ ” Brock said, “and I also sent a card. My mother would kill me if I didn’t.”

Several years after her father-in-law died suddenly during a Thanksgiving celebration in Connecticut, Brock is still thinking about the group e-mail she sent to share the sad news. “No one wants to get an e-mail saying someone has died, but I guess it’s more socially acceptable now,” she said.

“A friend just posted that her dog passed away, and another friend posted that her grandmother died. It’s impersonal, but everybody’s busy doing something, so to sit there on the phone for hours on end trying to get in touch with everyone is impossible.”

In Belmont, Gold says that not long after she forced herself to check Facebook more regularly, she learned that another close friend had died. “It was shocking,” she said, “but that’s how the family wanted to share the news.”

Beth Teitell can be reached at bteitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.

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