It’s been said too many times that social media is changing our relationships and degrading our ability to genuinely connect with others, but all those “superficial” interactions take on a unique significance when social media meets death. In a totally bizarre way, social media enables us to be friends with dead people.
And for that, I’m very grateful.
I’ve experienced the terrible, sinking feeling of finding out through Facebook that a friend has died. Scrolling through my newsfeed I see posts from their other friends, put the pieces together, and then watch as their death continues to unfold over the following hours, days, weeks, and years. Without a doubt, it’s a strange occurrence that brings us closer to death as a spectacle of sorts – we see it; we may even participate in the postings – but, at the same time, the sense of virtual closeness that social media creates implies that such things are also always felt at a distance.
These may not be contradictions; perhaps just changes in our experiences.
It’s just different.
After the Fact
In the past year at least three of my Facebook friends died.
I admit that it’s a bit strange to say “at least” but over the years I’ve learned that not all of my Facebook friends are actually living their lives out in the world. Despite the immediacy of insta-now status updates and the increasingly insatiable impulse to post our thoughts and feelings the second they emerge, in some cases it has taken me months to figure out that one of my friends passed away. By some standards, we weren’t the closest of friends, more like acquaintances, that is if you measure that sort of thing by time spent face to face. But whatever. We didn’t have many mutual friends so I had to find them out on my own.
In those instances, I’ve been struck by the strangeness of realizing that those times when I would think of them, just as I always had, were different without me knowing it. The difference, once understood, is startling, disorienting, and heartbreaking.
It’s a realization that they were no longer “on the other end” of those thoughts. It feels something like continuing to talk into silence long after a call has been dropped.
The end of the relationship itself, as it was, slips off quietly without notice, precluding the possibility of actually reacting to another’s death as it happens. In its place, one can only react to the death as a realization, the death of a relationship, or the end of possibilities to ever be mere possibilities again (to meet for a drink, to break bread, to even plan for such things), a realization that leaves one feeling alienated, dissatisfied….deeply disconnected.
In cases of a belated knowing of a friend’s passing, my relationships with them felt drastically different in a quiet, surreal, looking-back kind of way.
Watching the Changes at Present and What Stays the Same
Most recently, however, I learned of a friend’s passing before it made waves on Facebook and, this time, it was a different type of process and experience that felt, rather unexpectedly, unchanged. I was struck by how much everything felt bizarrely the same.
As far as friendships go, one could say that she and I were only “really” friends way back in middle school. We were friendly in high school (we went to prom in the same group our senior year) but we didn’t really hang out with the same crowds all that much. So, according to some standards, we weren’t super great friends in real life.
On (and thanks to) social media, however, it was a different story.
As one would expect, after high school we went our separate ways, to different states, to do very different things. A couple of years later we became Facebook friends, which means we managed to grow up and get over any weird, petty bullshit that could have carried over into our adult lives and (if we wanted it to) easily prevented us from ever being in touch, let alone “real” friends, again.
I’m not sure who initiated that friend request between us years ago, but I don’t think we would have stayed involved in each other’s lives at all had it not been for the “superficiality” of Facebook friendships. In other words, the social media mentality of “I wouldn’t be friends with this person in real life but what does a click on ‘confirm’ really matter, anyway” could actually be something that sets the conditions for better, more mature relationships.
In case you didn’t quite catch that, I’m suggesting that being Facebook friends (with her and with many others) actually facilitated that process of growing up and relating to one another as genuinely caring individuals.
This is one reason why I love Facebook. It can change the dimensions of our relationships.
She and I exchanged messages, likes, comments here and there, but it was never a huge amount of direct interaction. Nevertheless, the friendship that I had with her was deeper than our Facebook notifications would make it seem.
With this person in particular (which, again, has been the case with a number of others) the apparent distance of digital relationships actually facilitated a unique sense of closeness. I thought of her very frequently and, in fact, she was one of a handful of people on whom I would regularly check in, just to see how she was doing. I liked that she regularly posted pictures of herself, her family, her daughter, and over the years I watched her daughter grow up from an adorable beach baby into a feisty kindergartner with a vibrant personality. Occasionally, I would pick up on hints here and there that things were hard for her and her family, and then I would see the moves and changes that she was making in her life to be better, to be happier.
One of my major sadnesses, though, is that she probably didn’t know just how often I thought of her, just how often I would check in to see if she was doing well (which reminds me of this and makes me want to do more of this).
Even though she’s gone now, I still think of her a lot, and because of that, it still feels like our relationship can actually remain (mostly) the same. We didn’t make plans to meet up again. Our closeness was a kind of closeness of thought. I don’t know how much she thought of me, but that doesn’t even really matter. It doesn’t change how I experienced her as a friend and someone for whom I cared. I would think of her, check in, and wish her well. When I think of her now, I look at the pictures she posted of her daughter, and it’s much the same.
Facebook Friends for Life
Facebook has certainly changed the way that we experience and understand death. Never mind the personal, autobiographical archive one leaves behind. The possibility to see pictures of our friends, write on their walls, plan memorials, contact other family and friends, create remembrance groups…it’s all a very new type of event.
But what does that mean for life? For me, it means a couple of things.
Upon the arrival of 2009 I found out that a guy from my high school committed suicide. I still have a few pictures with him here and there from our theater classes and I remember talking about some pretty heavy stuff when I gave him rides home after rehearsals, but in terms of high school life, we were more acquaintances than friends. After high school, and after college, during my first winter break of grad school, I ran into him at a club in our hometown on New Year’s Eve. It was great to see him but we were dancing too much to talk and catch up. The whole night was just smiles, lights, glitter, and happiness. It was great seeing him and he looked amazing.
So I was shocked when I learned a couple of months later, via Facebook, that he took his own life.
For some reason, I don’t have access to his profile any longer. Maybe someone had it taken down. But I really do miss being able to see pictures of him, which helps me really value my Facebook friends.
Some might say it’s a strange to be friends with so many people, but when you want to connect with them and not just collect them, there is a feeling of “you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.” I miss him. And since I can’t check back on his profile, unlike with my other friend, I miss being able to realize the friendship, the closeness of thought, that Facebook had facilitated so well.
Finally, if, back in 2004 (at the advent of Facebook and my eagerly-awaited departure from all things associated with growing up in Idaho), you had asked me with whom from high school I would expect to keep in touch, I probably could have offered a small list. However, I know now that that list would have been (mostly) wrong. Over the past decade I have become a full grown adult and an avid social media user, and I am still surprised by how it has changed my relationships in terms of with whom and how we relate.
Despite the smack people like to talk about Facebook and how it ruins our ability to be full people with full relationships, it has also helped me stay in better contact, share more meaningful exchanges, and develop more consistent, thoughtful, and expressive relationships with people than I would have ever expected. In fact, these relationships are often more longstanding, more personal, and more robust than those with the people I can regularly see face to face.
For all of that, like I said before, I’m very grateful for social media platforms like Facebook.
Even more, I’m grateful that I have some really awesome, stellar Facebook friends who use it so well. I hope we stay Facebook friends for life.