The Sunday Magazine·PERSONAL ESSAY

My son's Facebook history might help me understand why he died. But Facebook won't let me see it.

Tara McGuire’s son died of an opioid overdose in 2015. His Facebook account has been “memorialized” and Facebook refuses to allow her to access it.
"This, I thought, will fill in the blank space, the unaccounted for hours leading to his death... I will at least know some of what happened."

In the digital age, people fight for the right to privacy. They also fight for what is known as "the right to be forgotten", the ability to erase chapters of their lives from the Internet. In a way, Tara McGuire has been waging that battle in reverse.  Her son Holden died of an opioid overdose in 2015. For three years, she has been trying to access his Facebook history. Here's her story.

When a friend delivered the brown cardboard bankers box from the Vancouver Police evidence warehouse, my reflex was to tear the lid off and see if my son was inside. Or rather, what of my son was inside. There must be something in that box to explain it all.  

I was searching for ways to make his sudden death untrue. I flipped open the lid and saw the box was filled with brown paper bags and envelopes. There were intricate labels on all of them. My chest contracted. Passport - said one of the labels. Bank card. Work boots. Socks. My son's last personal effects were on the kitchen table.

 "Are you sure you want to do that now?" my husband asked.  Our eyes met across the box, "I mean, maybe you could just think about it for a while." He knew better than anyone that I had the resilience of damp tissue paper. I nodded.

He gently closed the box, tugged it from my reluctant hands and took it down to the basement where he placed it on a high shelf in the storage room with the camping gear and Christmas decorations.

Tara McGuire and her 21-year-old son Holden, who died of a suspected heroin overdose. (Submitted by Tara McGuire)

About three months later, on a rare day I was alone in the house, I crept down to the storage room and reached for it.  I sat on the cold cement floor with the box between my knees and opened it. There were the brown paper bags and the labels: t-shirt, blue. Backpack, black. Work gloves. Samsung phone.

I snatched the envelope containing the phone, slammed the lid on the box and ran up the stairs before the earthy smell of my son's work-shirt could dilute my resolve.

Upstairs, I slid the phone out onto the counter. The screen was cracked but not shattered. I saw Holden's finger prints smudged all over it. Very likely the last thing his hands had touched.

After a lot of deep breathing, I pressed the power button and the phone vibrated, chimed and easily buzzed to life.

Tara McGuire's son, Holden, sits outside on a sunny day. (Submitted by Tara McGuire)

What to do now? I wanted to see him, so I instinctively tapped the photos icon. The last picture he had taken was of a poster for a heavy metal show on July 3, a day he would not live to see. But the one before that was of a forested trail, blackberries, salal, ivy and dappling light. The one before that showed he had been up on a hillside, looking out over the ocean with islands in the distance, the sky a brilliant blue. The next was a warm grassy road, forgotten by cars.

The experience of looking at these photos was transformative. I could be where he had been, see what he had seen, get some sense of his mood. These photographs were light, beautiful and calm. Look, there is the arc of the highway overpass and the rushing Capilano River. He was close to our house, he was almost home.

Knowing he had been surrounded by the beauty of nature was comforting. The next picture was a blurry photo of his face surrounded by leaves and sunlight. His last selfie. I began sending these photos to myself. My own phone came alive on the counter ding, ding, ding, messages coming in from Holden, Holden, Holden. It's him, he's alive, wait, there has been a mistake. Wait.

A few days later, I launched the familiar blue Facebook app on his phone. I had looked at his page from my own computer to read the messages of condolences from his friends but I had never thought to open his profile and read his private messages.

This, I thought, will fill in the blank space, the unaccounted for hours leading to his death. I'll be able to tell who he was with, what his frame of mind was, who he spoke with, where he went. I will at least know some of what happened.  

The app opened, his page came into view, I clicked on the messenger icon and blurry words began sharpening into focus. Anticipation and hope rose in me, a helium balloon in my chest, I sat a little taller. I could find my son here. This would explain things.

Then entire screen faded to blackness and lettering appeared saying something like: 'This account has been memorialized. No further access will be permitted.'

Could there be some kind of automated algorithm that triggers the slamming of the gate? Too many RIP's posted or too many keywords of condolence?- Tara McGuire

I felt like I was being strangled. My son was dissolving into vapour, again. His last communications would not be mine to see.

I emailed Facebook explaining the situation, pleading for help. The next day I received a automated reply saying that my son's account had been memorialized on the instruction of a friend or family member and could under no circumstances be reverted back to its active state, nor would they — under any circumstances — provide any additional details. This, they declared, was in order to keep the account secure.

I hadn't given them permission, nobody in our family had, none of his friends had. Could there be some kind of automated algorithm that triggers the slamming of the gate? Too many RIP's posted or too many keywords of condolence?  I have heard from others in similar situations, grieving parents with mysteries to solve, who have experienced a similar sudden cutting of the rope.

I consulted a lawyer who specializes in intellectual property. After some research she advised, "There is no point in trying to fight Facebook. There is not enough money in the world for that." So I gave up and added one more cruel devastation to the long list we had already and would continue to suffer.     

Down in that storage room in the basement, I have my son's books, his report cards, his teapot and his high school diploma. I have his music collection, his work boots and his underwear. I have his emails and his text messages, but no knowledge of my son's last few hours. Not because Facebook can't provide this closure for me, but because it refuses to.

Facebook now has a provision for a use to appoint a legacy contact which would allow access after death. But what 21 year old man thinks he's going to die? So there remains a blank section in time, an area just out of reach that does exist, but not for me. Words that could, perhaps, deliver a greater acceptance will never be mine.  And knowing that, keeps me forever at arm's length from peace.

Tara McGuire lives in Vancouver.

 Click 'listen' at the top of the page to hear Tara McGuire's essay.