When my friend Brent died in his sleep in 2005, Facebook was still a yacht-measuring contest on Ivy League campuses, and My Space was peopled by your cousin’s garage band and that dude in high-school who still plays D&D.
The only way I could determine the truth of his passing was through word-of-mouth. Because I saw friends shaking in each other's arms, saw the cut-to-the-bone grief on the reddened faces of his family, because I baked cookies for his funeral, his death was made real.
I had closure, if not healing.
Last Saturday, my friend Jeff from high school died of a massive heart attack. We were in a comedy troupe together, and I’d seen him a handful of times since graduation. I followed him on Facebook as he became a talented visual artist. But my favorite memory of him was high school biology class.
There were four of us in this lab group. Three of them swirled about in the upper-echelons of popularity: a female soccer star; a male blonde-hair, blue-eyed, slightly tanned, dimpled paragon of Americana; and Jeff, a footballer, incredibly funny, and I believe voted part of the homecoming court.
And then there was me.
But Jeff would have none of this. Jeff treated me to the bear hug that was his personality, enfolding me in his graces without prejudice. And the rest of that lab group followed his lead – and maybe I did too. Maybe I had some assumptions about the “Heathers” of my high school that needed to be broken down by this jolly, kind, mass of teenager.
But, when Jeff died, unlike Brent, there was no closure, no reality of demise. And it's Facebook's fault.
Because our adult relationship is mediated through digital means, and ultimately, being the Breakfast Clubby Gen-Xer that I am, digital is both real and unreal. And thus the fact of his death is both real and unreal as well.
Right there is a snarky political post from two days before he died - here he was tagged in a photo - over here, an ad for his upcoming art show…. He’s not gone, he’s just gone digital.
I hazard a guess Millennials feel differently – the whole “it’s not real until it’s Facebook real” would perhaps give them the closure I seek. And perhaps not. Perhaps there are swaths of we under 50's who are caught in the “denial” stage of grief, bouncing between it and depression, never able to reach acceptance, because our loved one’s are still staring us in the face…book.
And yet, what the episode explores, and what I’m puzzling with here, is whether, in the end, we are served by this immortalization or harmed by it. If we can’t ever move on from the space of denial and depression to acceptance, can we ever fully function in our every day lives again? And would our passed loved ones want us to remain in this purgatory?
And yet there can be a dignity in deletion. I know I wouldn’t want my social media preserved forever and ever amen. I’ve said and done some embarrassing, mundane, poorly executed and now all recorded, things in my life. I don’t want these cemented in the minds of my loved ones. Heck, I even cringe sometimes at the Facebook “memory” posts that pop up every day. Did I really say that? Did I really wear my hair like that?
Every once in awhile I want to write back to those jarring emails from Brent. "How you doin' bud? We miss you down here." And I've been checking Jeff's page every day. Almost as if I'm checking to see if his death is still true, like watching Titanic and thinking this time the boat won't sink.
But it always does, and they're both always still just as lost to me.
I guess, in the end, I'll put my passwords in my will.