What do you do when a Facebook friend who you vaguely know dies suddenly? What’s the most sanity-inducing route of dealing with the fact that you have weird online links to their internet presence? A childhood friend passed away this week at the age of 32. It was a surprise. I had not talked to her in about five years, after a fairly disastrous night at a bar that ended with her drinking too much and haranguing me for an hour. But we were childhood friends, and played sports together, and I played at her house, and I enjoyed talking to her when I knew her from ages 8 – 18, so hearing about her death inspires feelings, but I’m not particularly sure how to classify them. Is there new etiquette around death these days, considering the variety of spheres in which we have avatars? Is it rude to defriend her on Facebook, even though I’ve looked at her page probably about ten times in the past few days, and it’s her life, frozen, forever? How do you grieve today?
I’m just thrown by this information. If you had anything to say about processing grief, I’d love to hear it.
FB Stands For Feeling Bad
Without a doubt, we are embarking on a strange new way of dealing with sickness, death and grieving. An old friend dies and you find out way too late, then end up reading backwards on Facebook, tracing the horrible path from early sickness to fundraising blogs to hopes of experimental treatments to a sudden death announcement by a spouse or friend. Or you do that with a friend of a friend, because you’re morbid and you can’t stop yourself. Thanks to the way the internet functions in our lives, sometimes it’s tough to separate mourning from rubbernecking, supporting from procrastinating, mourning a loss from obsessing about our own eventual death.
I can understand why your old friend’s death feels so disconcerting to you. You’ve been friends for years, lately you’ve been out of touch, and now she’s gone. Maybe you need to track down a mutual friend and talk about it. But sometimes that’s not possible, or it feels inappropriate, so you have to find a way to mourn on your own.
But processing these things on your own can also be seriously disconcerting. Two years ago, a close friend of mine was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer. He and his wife (also a close friend) set up a Facebook page and shared regular updates on how his treatment was progressing. These two had an enormous group of friends, and posts to the page by that wide circle ranged from moving to hilarious to sweetly supportive to tone-deaf. There were a lot of thoughtful, smart people in the mix and they often made me cry. But there was so much updating and commenting that it often felt overwhelming. Even though I was in close touch with my friend’s wife, she mostly disseminated info on the page because it was too exhausting to do otherwise, so I started to worry that I’d miss some crucial bit of news if I didn’t check the page first thing in the morning and right before bed.
Having cancer is hell. People with cancer should do whatever they want to do, from broadcasting to a wide group to telling the world to fuck right off and then disappearing into a cave. Our job, as friends, is to show up, bring food, make calls, respect boundaries, send emails, listen, help, repeat. We have to deal with our own shit on our own time so that we can be dependable, helpful, ego-less friends when we’re needed.
But that doesn’t mean that we’re well equipped to deal with the extreme sadness of death in private, staring into the lonely glow of a computer screen. Reading, late at night, that your friend’s liver levels are fucked but that the doctor says that “there’s still plenty of time and lots of options left,” is the very definition of news you can’t fucking use. Or rather, it’s news you can use—to keep you up all night, tossing and turning. And when you get up in the morning and start looking for information online and freaking out about his prognosis, and your mind is awash with too much information, but you did it to yourself? That’s a brand new kind of stupid, isn’t it? You are on a terrible private journey, and even though you know you should put down the computer and get some fresh air and try to put things in perspective, you keep compulsively looking for more information, as if that will set your mind at ease.
When I invited my friend’s wife to lunch, we would just say, “This fucking sucks” and look at each other and cry. I didn’t need to lose an afternoon reading up about HAI pumps. I didn’t need to sift through 45 comments by various friends, sometimes feeling connected, sometimes wishing I could block this one friend so I didn’t have to read his oddly grandiose statements of support. But there were also incredible old videos of my friend, great photos of him, and lots of disturbingly morbid jokes (his favorite aspect of the page by far, when he was still around).
My friend died. We took care of him. There was a memorial. Those events were traumatic and complicated in different ways. Two years later, though, his page remains as a place that people—his friends, his widow, his mom—can honor and remember him. We will spend many years missing him and wanting him back. His page allows us to express that, or to read a note from someone else who feels the same way.
That said, I have mixed feelings about all of this online emoting, honestly. Or maybe most of us have mixed feelings about dealing with death online because we have mixed feelings about death, period. There are endless layers there, and endless ways to paint the world black with your pain. The only thing I can tell you is to make a distinction between thinking and feeling. If you need to work through your emotions about your friend, then do that. Find a way to crawl into that space where you remember her and appreciate her and celebrate her place in your life, and also mourn her loss.
But don’t obsess just because you’re doing this alone. Sort through your feelings, then get up and go outside and take a deep breath and appreciate how very fucking alive you are. We’re all running out of time. Knowing that is a gift, not a curse. Getting a glimpse of death might send you down a rabbit hole of mutual Facebook friends and Wikipedia entries on Long QT Syndrome or heroin overdoses or autoimmune disorders, but at some point, you have to turn away from the darkness and say to yourself: Life goes on. And also: I think I’m in the mood for a chocolate malt, motherfucker.
My family is ultra conservative. I am pretty liberal. Instead of being rejected by my family, though, something else has happened: they have 100% accepted me, but they do not accept anyone else in the world who holds my beliefs. For instance, I moved in with my boyfriend without being married (oh the horror), and they accepted it. But if they hear of anyone else living with their partner unmarried, those folks are full of sin and immoral and terrible people. When I ask “Am I full of sin and immoral and terrible, too, then?” they say no, of course not, I’m different. I’m certainly not different—I’m having the same unmarried sex everyone else is having! The only way I can understand this whole thing is that this is their weird coping mechanism to deal with my lifestyle and also keep me a part of the family.
My question is what to do about it, if anything. Their beliefs drive me crazy, and if they had rejected me as a whole in the beginning, I would have walked away completely. My friends say that I should just be grateful they haven’t totally rejected me and therefore should keep the peace (i.e., keep my mouth shut). A part of me, though, says I should take a stand for those other folks out there that my family is judging, and rub it in their faces as much as possible. (“Oh yeah? You don’t like how the morning after pill is now sold over the counter? Well I have one in my medicine cabinet to use JUST IN CASE! What do you think about that?!”) Another part of me says that this is all politics and politics should remain outside the family. What do you think?
As someone who spent a decade or so digging into my mildly dysfunctional past (I even wrote a book about it), I would strongly advise you to accept your family for who they are.
I’m not saying I regret my path. But I haven’t always been that sensitive when I was challenging others to change their ways. I would lay out what I wouldn’t accept any longer in what I fancied was a courageous and bold manner, but I didn’t always listen so well. I basically chose not to accept and respect other people’s limits and boundaries, without realizing that’s what I was doing. I was reckless, and I’m lucky that my relationships survived that.
When you’re young, you think that you should simply stand up for what you believe is right, and those closest to you can either align themselves with your beliefs or fuck right off. But families of origin rarely work that way. In order to have strong, fulfilling family relationships, you have to shut the fuck up a lot. You can’t always say exactly what you believe. For the longest time, my mom couldn’t trust that I wasn’t going to get flinty or criticize her or launch into a self-righteous diatribe or hint vaguely that she’d let me down as a kid. Of course I underestimated how hurtful I was being; I thought that anything that served the truth was justified. I thought I was helping my mom by dragging her into openly contentious conversations.
I didn’t get why she always seemed so mad at me. It made me feel terrible, and angry, and lonely.
Pretty babyish, huh? It took me a long time to see that I would be a lot happier if I just accepted the people in my family for who they were. With spouses and friends, maybe you push gently for change here and there. But with family, you have to be careful. Your family brings more to your life than you realize right now, and you need to try to respect their boundaries and keep the peace. They’re not antagonizing you (and maybe that takes some effort on their part), so maybe you should try to return the favor. Your life can be filled with people who back up your beliefs and make perfect sense to you; there will just be this one pocket of people whose crazy beliefs you’re forced to tolerate. If they were torturing small animals or spreading hatred that would be one thing. Instead, they’re just petrified of the idea that people out there might be fucking without a marriage license. I know, I know. It’s bigger than that. But if you cut them out of your life, I think it’s going to cause you a lot of pain for a long time. Why do that?
I get that this choice feels unethical to you. And look, when random people mention that they’re against gay marriage, or that they think poor people are just lazy motherfuckers looking for handouts, I can’t keep my mouth shut. I turn into a giant asshole on the spot. I tell people that they’re going to go down in history as bigots. People love it when I say that!
You can wage those wars with acquaintances, knock on doors, preach, change minds. Don’t take that battle home, though. Changing your family’s mind about politics rarely works. If you want to nudge them, respectfully, maybe you’ll see some changes over time. But I wouldn’t be aggressive or walk away from them entirely. You’ll only hurt yourself.
As Wallace Stegner wrote in “Angle of Repose,” “Wisdom is knowing what you have to accept.” Let your family’s comments fuel your dedication to your causes. But don’t let them prevent you from seeing clearly that these people really do love you. They love you enough to set aside their differences. It makes sense for you to do the same for them.
Heather Havrilesky (aka Polly Esther) is The Awl's existential advice columnist. She's also a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, and is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead 2011). She blogs here about scratchy pants, personality disorders, and aged cheeses. Top photo by Loren Sztajer; bottom photo by Dion Hinchcliffe.