Four years ago, I found out on Facebook that a friend of mine had died.
First I saw a status update that said “I’m worried. Is Blair okay?” When I saw those words something happened in my stomach, like the moment you’re about to fall asleep when you dream of tripping over a rock and snap awake, disoriented and anxious. I clicked on Blair’s profile and saw an update from another mutual friend: He’s dead. We’re not sure what happened yet. This was quickly followed by admonishments not to post about it because someone was still trying to reach his family. Some of the people closest to him hadn’t been notified, so the collective outpouring of shock and grief that had just begun was halted, the horrified statuses erased, and Blair’s network of friends mourned in Internet silence while we waited for permission to discuss what none of us wanted to know.
This is how we find out about death these days. Not from phone calls or letters or in the news, but online, skimming our social media accounts while standing in line at the post office or waiting for coffee to brew. Of course no one is ever ready for an unexpected death, especially the death of someone young and healthy, but I imagine that in other generations there was usually a moment to prepare – a brief preface, the words “I have some bad news for you.” It’s impossible to brace yourself when just a moment ago you were responding to someone’s birthday party invitation.
Social media lets everything in, from the trivial to the life-changing. This is both its blessing and its curse. In the time it takes to organize a phone tree, everyone you know has seen the news on their Facebook or Twitter feeds. (Later that day I received a phone call from a friend who didn’t want me to find out about Blair’s death online – too late.) But while social media sometimes gives you information with little delicacy or tact, it also allows for a broader and more interconnected sense of community in which to work through devastating news. Sometimes it’s actually easier to mourn online than it is in person.
It’s especially true when your friendship primarily exists online to begin with. Blair and I lived in different states, though we occasionally crossed paths while traveling. The last time I saw him was a year and a half before his death, when he slept on my couch while passing through Tucson. We kept in touch via Facebook messages, and even when we didn’t talk that regularly, seeing his broad, warm smile pop up in my newsfeed was like walking past a beloved familiar face on the street. Now, though I couldn’t fly across the country for his memorial service, seeing his many friends post their cherished pictures and memories on his wall made me feel I was sharing in a collective effort to honor him.
A year and a half after Blair’s death, Heather, my best friend since seventh grade died in her sleep, of an undiagnosed heart condition. I didn’t find out on Facebook this time, but over the phone, from her husband. In turn, I notified as many people as I could think of via phone call – and when I was so tired of crying I didn’t feel like I could speak another word, by text message.
Still, in the days and weeks and even months that followed her death, there were people who slipped through the communication cracks. There were people we couldn’t find phone numbers for, or people Heather had fallen out of touch with, or distant friends who didn’t know the rest of her social circle. A year after her death I saw an ex-boyfriend wish her happy birthday on Facebook, apparently having no idea what had happened. Just a few months ago someone posted a status update about missing Heather and a woman we went to high school with responded “What happened to Heather?” and we had to break the news and watch her sorrow play out in real time in a comment thread, freshly painful for her though it was old news for us. In our increasingly virtual lives we’re so constantly bombarded with information, it’s not surprising if every so often we miss something of vital importance.
Social media allows us to connect with friends who are gone in much the same way we connect with those who are far away. I still post on my best friend’s wall when I see a movie she would like or hear a song we used to dance to together or just think of her or miss her or wish I could hear her voice. Other friends do the same, transforming her Facebook page into a digital grave where we leave stories and pictures and jokes instead of flowers. Every so often someone unearths and posts a photo of her that we haven’t all seen a million times in our hours of grief-stalking her profile. When that happens it feels like the equivalent of discovering a new poem by Sylvia Plath – a cultural treasure, a new edition in a collection I know by heart.
Grieving online doesn’t just allow the people left behind to connect with lost loved ones; it allows us to connect with each other. On the day of Heather’s funeral, friends who couldn’t make it back to Colorado for the service wore purple nail polish in her honor. Every year on her birthday, people share funny stories about her and videos of songs that she loved, and it’s like a long-distance party. After her death, I got back in touch with people I’d drifted apart from, dying to re-establish links to my childhood, to rekindle friendships that once sustained me. Losing my best friend prompted new associations as well. A distant acquaintance, someone I’d only added because we had a bunch of mutual friends, reached out to me on Facebook with an incredibly kind and heartfelt message of support. As a result, I’ve gotten to know her better and she’s become one of my dearest friends. If Heather’s online presence is a digital grave, the friends I’ve made or reconnected with since her death are the fresh green grass covering it, proving that new life always follows loss.
Staying connected with Heather and Blair online, and sharing my grief with others who are going through the same thing, is no substitute for having them here with me, but it’s a source of solace that can’t be overlooked. As we do more and more of our talking and laughing and loving and mourning in the digital world, it seems increasingly absurd to regard it as separate from “real life.” It’s just as real as any other way we reach out to each other, and it can hurt – or heal – just as much.