Foreword: This post mixes my personal experience with an academic framework to discuss the loss of a dear friend and the mess of emotions digital lives create. It uncomfortably straddles the private/public, personal/professional divide and this is intentional- it reflects the friendship I had with the deceased. I post it publicly for catharsis and in memoriam of the lost friend. No identifying information is provided out of respect for those who are grieving, so please be courteous and respectful when leaving comments/discussing.
I had just sat down with a water bottle and a book to wait for my grandmother. She had fallen and injured her shoulder on a Monday afternoon in a (and I mean this in the best way possible) rural town in Northern Mexico. Our options for out-of-hours treatment were an emergency room or a sports therapy masseuse, so we went for the latter.
Knowing I’d be in for an hour wait, I decided to perch myself in some shade overlooking the Sea of Cortez and read about peculiar children and imaginary monsters with the sound of the tide in my ears. Exceptionally hot for May, the beach in front of the spa was deserted and peaceful. My phone auto-connected to the local WiFi (I may have been there before…) and my tranquil reading was interrupted by Facebook notifications galore. A sinking feeling settled in my gut when I saw one message was from a friend I’d not spoken to since I moved to London. Apprehensively, I touched his disembodied head on the screen and read the message. A friend, who I had also not spoken to since the move, had tragically passed away.
I won’t mention specifics or go into details here out of respect for those who are grieving. Also, I don’t think details are necessary for the point I want to make, which is, the loss of friends is inevitable, but finding out through social media is a surreal experience.
I clicked the side button on my phone to shut off the screen, sat it on the table next to me and looked out at the sea. I remember thinking what seemed like a peaceful, sunny afternoon only moments ago suddenly felt sinister. The tranquil quiet I’d enjoyed moments before suddenly seemed a deliberate, silent malice engineered so that racing thoughts could become an amplified cacophony. I remember feeling tears slide down my cheeks, but I don’t remember wiping them away. In retrospect, I suppose the breeze off the ocean took care of that for me.
After an unspecified amount of time I picked my phone back up and responded the only way I could, “I’m sorry to hear that. Fuck. Thanks for letting me know.” My response is almost amusing now. A mix of measured, reasoned and polite with raw and incredulous, and really, that’s a good way to describe communication through the medium of Facebook Messenger.
This friend is not the only I have lost, and they are not the only passing I have discovered through social media. That I have experienced loss in virtual spaces before doesn’t make the discovery of death any less strange and it doesn’t make the ensuing experience any less surreal in its painfulness. Seeing dead names tagged or the accounts of the recently-passed active through requiem posts is like seeing a ghost. A fragment, a shell, a piece of the person passes before your eyes as you scroll through your newsfeed and your heart catches in your throat and you can’t breathe because for a split second your bastard brain makes you think they’re back. It is uncanny. Literally uncanny. They’re existing, and yet not. They are trapped in a time capsule that is ever present, ever changing and ever updating itself. That you must bear witness to these updates seems cruel, even as you are sitting on a beach in the usually cheerful Mexican sun.
A few more drab sentences were exchanged that afternoon between myself and the bearer of bad news. Polite, yet raw. I remember closing my eyes tight and pressing my head against the beach chair I was sitting on and thinking ‘This isn’t real’. It was, of course, real. Unfortunately real. Catching the time when I opened my eyes, I realised I needed to collect my grandmother (who is fine by the way) from her appointment and get on with the challenges of my own reality as it was unfolding halfway across the world from where the loss occurred.
Removed by timezones, oceans, countries, and languages, I was baffled by how ‘real’ the news felt as intangible as it was. I wished I had a letter to hold in my hand. As odd as it sounds, I wished a courier pigeon flew all the way across the Atlantic (and almost to the Pacific) to drop off a piece of parchment for me to hold because that would have made the news easier to take I suppose. It would make more sense if I could feel the weight of such heavy news in my hand. It would have been nice to have a letter to crumble or clench in a fist, but I had only the ephemeral waves of WiFi going through the air and to my phone, and those waves are weightless. Unlike the waves crashing against the sandy beach, they don’t even make sound. Not that sound is tangible, but, well, it at least hints that there is something or someone there and makes you feel less alone.
As I sit in my flat accompanied by the click-clack of laptop typing almost a month later, the finality of the death has thoroughly sunk into my brain. Although the death has crossed my mind almost every day for one reason or another, the surreal feeling of loss on the beach that afternoon in May is gone. A bit of time has provided the distance necessary to reflect on how the Facebook medium is the message (you just knew I’d cite McLuhan, didn’t you?), but also to reflect on how loss is experienced in the virtual world.
As a scholar of videogames, I experience virtual loss every time my avatar misses a jump (I’m notoriously bad at platformers), but this is different. This is real loss experienced, at least in part, through a virtual medium. Typically in games, and in techno-mediated-life in general, loss is usually inconsequential. Whilst moderately annoying or inconveniencing, the on-screen death of a character or the loss of a file (with some major notable exceptions) is not an insurmountable blow. It is a setback, yes, but it is not the final end. There is always an option to restart from the last save, or system restore to last operable point, but not when it is a human who has been lost. There is no undo, no restart, no ctrl+z that can bring them back. For me this makes the situation feel even more confusing and brutal.
To wrap this piece up, let me be clear: I do not fault the medium, the message, or the sender for the delivery of bad news. That would be utterly ludicrous. I don’t fault anyone or anything for the circle of life. In the end, as Kelly has said, we all become worm food. (Oh, sorry, I should have included a spoiler alert for Life). Of course some folks believe death is a beginning rather than an end, and that’s cool, but I won’t go into that here. Rather I want to end by saying the experience of loss is a privilege (and a curse) afforded to those who live long enough to experience it. I am much more aware of the life around me, even as it occurs on virtual platforms, because of having experienced loss. The ‘Memories’, timehops, tags, and memorial posts we all witness daily are virtual gravestones which mark out life; and the ache in the chest and the sting in the eye we have when we see them is a physical manifestation of our humanity as gifted to us by these virtual reminders. There is no stronger evidence of how the virtual and real are intertwined than in the example of death via Facebook notification.
And here is where this blog post ends for my living, breathing readers. The message below is only for my worm-food friend on the assumption the recently deceased are as tech-savvy in death as they were in life.
Until next time,
My dear comrade, this blog post comes nowhere near the commemoration I would have liked to give you. I think a stern carving of your frowning face in marble to preside over a library of under-funded, over-caffeinated postgrads would have been ideal, but alas… Funds don’t allow. I hope I have achieved the appropriate word-cocktail of scholastic, cheeky, and vulgar that I know you always enjoyed. If not, please come haunt me because I miss you.
PS- Give Molly a scratch under the chin for me.