It’s 2:45 p.m. In 10 minutes I will resume my day, but for now I have a few moments of quiet. I pick up my mostly empty mug and scroll through my Facebook news feed.
Then I see a news article that stops my breath. “Victim in fatal crash identified as head pastor of …” Above the headline is the name of a dear family friend. He officiated my wedding, buried my husband’s grandmother. He was my husband’s first boss and remained his mentor. For almost 20 years they had met for lunch and talked on the phone a few times a year. Now he was dead, killed this morning on a highway in our hometown.
And I find this out on Facebook.
The blood drains from my face. Quickly I check for confirmation, and I find it easily. The local news station has his picture above the headline on their website. Now my news feed is flooded.
“Can’t believe this sweet man is gone.”
“My heart goes out to his family.”
“Can’t believe it, just saw him yesterday.”
A mutual friend sends me a private message. “Wanted to let you know our dear friend is gone. He was a great man.”
I close my computer and splash some water on my face. My time is up. I have to get back to my day.
In the car my phone buzzes with texts. Last year we moved over 2,000 km from our hometown, and everyone wants to make sure we are still in the loop. “Didn’t know if you’ve heard,” they all begin.
By the time my sister calls an hour later, I’ve started to compose myself. She begins the conversation slowly, but I have no energy for niceties. “Are you calling to tell me our friend died?” I say abruptly. “I already saw it on Facebook.”
At first I am offended. Is this who we have become? We give equal importance on our screens to pictures of our dinner and pictures of our children, throwing around love and grief on our status updates. Are we really so calloused?
But over the next several hours, something beautiful unfolds. I watch old friends reach out to one another. They share stories and laugh again at inside jokes from 20 years ago. My dear friend’s Facebook page is soon covered with gratitude for his life. I quickly realize my husband and I are not the only ones who called him a mentor. He was never the loudest voice in the room, but his steady, faithful encouragement rippled further than I could have imagined. I stare at the screen, reading note after note from acquaintances and strangers. I am mesmerized, often pausing to marvel, “How did she know him?” or “I had no idea they were connected to each other!”
If we lived in the same town, we would have all gathered in a living room that night. We would have sat together, remembering and crying and hugging one another. Grief draws us together. When someone dies, we naturally reach for one another, and our best comfort to those most wounded is our presence. In another era, we would have sat in a living room that night.
Instead, we gather over Facebook, over text messages and emails. What happens on the computer screen simply reflects the natural human reaction to death. It is no longer offensive to me. It feels good, normal, right.
But it is not enough.
As much as I appreciate the power of Facebook to connect me with old friends that evening, my husband’s presence comforts me most. After dinner we walk, holding hands, mostly silent. Gradually we begin to retell stories about our friend. How we met him, who he had been, things he’d said. Despite my time with others over social media, I still need human contact, real presence, to soothe me.
We walk home and research plane tickets. My husband will fly back for the funeral, but I will stay home to care for our young children. I cry at the thought. I want to sit in a room with others who knew him. I want to hug his wife. Grief draws us together, and I don’t want to be alone.
Facebook announced my dear friend was dead, and Facebook connected me to others who loved him. Facebook memorialized him, and gave me a place to express my own love and gratitude. Social media reflected our deep need for community, but technology could not satisfy it.
I need to actually be in the presence of people I know and love. Facebook can’t walk beside me or hold my hand. There is no app for that.
Photo by mislav-m (Flickr CC)