I’ve been on the internet for a long time – since at least 1996, more than TWENTY years – and I have made a lot of friends in that time. I’ve made serious, lasting friendships. I’ve made short but vibrant ones. I’ve had friendships fade away. I’ve followed people as their handles and interests and careers have changed. I married a woman I met on the internet. My internet friendships are really no different to me than the ones that I have because they developed in close physical proximity. Connection is connection is connection.
In the last month, two women that I absolutely adored and knew only online passed away. Both were smart, funny, lively women. Both deaths were unexpected, even if it was in different ways. And I found out about both through Facebook from someone who was not a mutual friend.
I know that social media has complicated a lot of things that used to happen in relative privacy – pregnancy, miscarriage, illness, mourning – because they now happen semi-publicly and surrounded by strangers. I’ve seen a lot of thinkpieces that say this is a bad thing or ones that focus on people who jump the gun and post too soon before the closest people can be told and sure, there are good points to be found about etiquette and timelines, but I feel like a lot of them miss the mark on the power of that public mourning and attribute it to some kind of pageantry. But that’s not at all what I’ve seen.
Watching my friends be mourned by both people I know and people I don’t is moving. It’s painful. It’s joyful. It’s human. My wonderful, smart, funny, kind, talented friends were so, so loved. People are so grateful to have known them that they’re sharing that gratitude publicly, preserved on the internet for others to see. I’ve seen hundreds of tributes to these women, from grand to simple, and they are all so clearly meaningful to the people who post them. To call it pageantry is insulting.
I’m grateful for the public grieving social media allows. It is so joyful and heartening to see that someone you loved was profoundly loved by so many other people, that their life had an impact on people you will never know beyond their post. And because I knew these people only from a distance, it allows me to mourn them when normally I wouldn’t really have the chance.
I can be a crappy friend. I’m in my own head a lot, so I often forget to reach out to the people I love. I don’t engage as much as I want to because I don’t want to leave people hanging when I suddenly find it too hard to keep going. But the internet, through Instagram likes and Twitter faves and Facebook reactions and Words With Friends games, has given me a way to say in small way, “Hey, I’m here. You’re great.” without the risk of disappointing someone because I end up disengaging. And those likes and faves and reactions on my own posts give me a happy thrill of connection.
Being able to read and react to memorial posts has been a powerful source of grief processing for me, which is not at all something I expected. I miss my friends. I miss them so fucking much. Seeing that other people miss them feels cathartic and comforting and human. And I hope these hurting strangers feel the “I loved her too” that I mean with every click.