Dealing with Death on Facebook

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I woke up about this time last year to a notification that I’d been tagged in a Facebook post by an old grad school friend. I clicked on the link. It was not a school photo, like I expected, but a post that our classmate Gigi, had died. I didn’t even know he was sick. Gigi was the second friend I’d lost through Facebook so far that year.

A few weeks before that, I found out that my friend Dave had passed away through a Facebook. I was surprised as I had been with Gigi. I knew Dave through an outdoor club: I knew he was sick, but still, he seemed strong: all summer long I’d “liked” pictures of his hikes and climbs.

When I read that Dave had died, I didn’t just feel sad, but something harder to recognize, something that felt like embarrassment, or shame. I’ve always believed that we should talk more about death and grief, but is it really appropriate to post someone’s death on their wall? What are the rules of Facebook? Aren’t some things too sad to share? Or too private? And what would my friends have wanted? It’s not like they could remove a post if they didn’t like it. And besides, what was I supposed to say? What could I say? What could anyone? I didn’t understand. How could I have been so out of touch?

The only thing I knew, was that I didn’t “like” it at all.

I still hadn’t figured out how to deal with Dave’s death when I followed my friend’s link to Gigi’s page.  His profile picture showed him bald, smiling wryly from behind a blue surgical mask.

Gigi and I became friends–before Facebook even existed– probably because he’d just quit smoking. When all our classmates went outside for a cigarette, we sat together and talked. About everything. There was a moment of romance and then graduation. I moved to a different country, and fell out of touch. But I knew he’d always be there and one day we’d look each other up. I was wrong. Now it was too late.

Over the course of the day, Gigi’s Facebook page filled with photos and memories, gratitude and hugs, from everyone who had known and loved him, just as Dave’s page had, and I felt the same shame. I didn’t know what to say. Part of me wanted to say all the things that everyone else had. The other part of me wanted to curse Facebook, or fairness or God, to apologize for being a bad friend, to get mad.

I thought about getting off of Facebook entirely, but was already feeling out of touch. But when I logged on my entire feed was @Dave, tagging Dave, thanking Gigi, loving Gigi, showing Dave triumphant, literally, on mountaintops. I should have been grateful that they were so well loved, but selfishly, I wanted the posts to stop. With every post and tag I got upset all over again.

I wasn’t able to go to Gigi’s real world memorial, but I went to Dave’s. After the service, I expected that the Facebook wake would stop.  But for weeks and then months, and almost a year now, they have not. But over the weeks and months, my sense of shame and loss, privacy and panic, turned into a kind of wonder.  On Facebook, Dave and Gigi were not dead. Their memory did not fade. Almost the opposite. As time passed and people dug up old photos they grew healthier, younger. They became more alive.

This morning, I woke up to another email notification. “Reconnect with your friends on Facebook.” There were two pictures, one of Dave waving back down the trail, and another of Gigi, with the smile I remember, on our last day of school. I felt as happy as I did sad. On Facebook, Gigi still has all his brown hair.

A Life Beyond our Control

Thatata in 1966 on top of Bible Rock 1

I’ve been working on my book now for just over two years, and I realize now and then that most of my people have no idea what I’ve been up to. I write and write and write and don’t say a word.

The funny thing is I’d love to talk about my book, if only I knew where to start. Marketing people say I should start with an elevator pitch—the idea of it makes me cringe—to hook you with my story in the mere fifteen seconds that we are presumably trapped together in a moving metal box. But I don’t want to hook anybody and my story takes more than fifteen seconds to tell. That is why I have been sitting at my desk for two years.

I began writing the week after Zilla’s dad passed away. His parents live in Sri Lanka—we live in Seattle—and at the time his father got seriously ill—two years before that– Sri Lanka was in the last throes of civil war.  All-in-all we made seven around the world trips to Sri Lanka, most of them without a return ticket or a suitcase after emergency midnight calls. Instead of discussing what to eat for dinner we were arguing about what constitutes care and how much money we were willing—or able—to pay.

Sometimes I feel like I’m writing a travelogue about all the places a tourist never goes, or a story about how families change, or what it is like to lose a parent. But I’ve realized recently, as revisions have come together, that what I am really writing is a love story, a story about marriage. Loving one another is as rewarding as it is hard.  We all have to learn this lesson. The truth is you cannot always make a person change.

Why add another book to the world’s great library? I don’t know. I don’t mean that in the spirit of defeat, but of possibility. I don’t know what effect my book will have, and that, to me is the whole point of creating: to take our experiences and give them a life beyond our control.

Zilla is going to read the manuscript soon, which will be interesting. Both he and his mother have been so generous to let me write about them and what I now consider our family, at such a difficult time.  Especially generous because the honest me is often frustrated, more than a little impatient, and sometimes mean. We’ll see if they still love me after they read it. That was a joke. Maybe the whole point of my story is that I now know they will.