Internet/Telecom/Social Media

Mourning the passing of online friends

“We are who we are because of who we love,” said my wife, “and it will always be so.”

We were discussing life, and its transience, off of two years in which far too many of those close to us have stopped.

There are a few people who I met via my Livejournal blog, now more than 15 years ago, who became online friends. One of those people happens to have been Sam, who introduced me into a small group that went on to start Scholars and Rogues. The Rogues are similarly part of the fabric of my friendships.

Livejournal, itself, was a weird little sanctuary for a time. Before trolls turned social media to mud, it was possible to have gentle and humour-filled conversations and meet like-minded others. Somehow, Livejournal worked and introduced me to many who have remained in my life, in much the way I have remained close to people I met once for a few minutes on a bus-ride in the middle of India.

About six months ago, one of those Livejournal friends let me know that he had been diagnosed with a rare and particularly vicious form of stomach cancer. He’s my age. He wrote regularly about his treatment and the impact on him and his wife, including – when he went briefly into remission – the weirdness of starting to live again when he’d already put that aside.

Having gone through the deaths-by-cancer of several friends in the past two years, I’ve also gone from not having any idea what the stages of dying look like, to the shared horrified look of knowing when the final stages become obvious.

He died on Monday evening, “comfortable and sedated, holding my hand listening to Handel’s Messiah and he chose to leave before the hallelujah chorus,” according to his wife who, in the midst of her own grief, let his online friends know the news.

How does one mourn online friendships? They’re not really virtual. They’re real, but the medium of social media has given us much greater access to others even as it denies us the intimacy of physical contact. The group gathering of mourning is lost, along with the mutual comfort that brings.

It’s a strange world, this online one. It permits people who would otherwise have few friends in common, to find a rich life scattered across the world. But we lack the language for what happens when those friendships reach their conclusion.

We’ll find that eventually, I imagine. For now, I grieve.

4 replies »

  1. Gavin’s post speaks clearly to us at S&R.

    Most of us have been involved here for eight years, and several back to our training wheels at 5th Estate on LiveJournal. In fact, that’s where I virtually met Gavin. But I’ve never met Gavin in person.

    I’ve known a few Scrogues, such as Sam and Wendy, since the early ’90s. I taught Lisa Wright, our staff photographer, when she was an undergrad at my university. I’ve met Brian Angliss just once while visiting Boulder. But the rest of my colleagues at S&R? They’re just electrons to me (but really nice ones). One of my I-won-the-Lottery dreams is paying everyone’s way to a week-long S&R convention at some spiffy vacation spot.

    I’m hard pressed to explain how the way I think has been shaped and honed here at S&R by people I’ve never met. I remain continually surprised that so many of us have been virtually together on this journey. That includes some of our long-time commenters.

    The circumstance Gavin describes has struck here. One of our earlier Scrogues was Martin Bosworth, who died in 2010. I fought with Martin (virtually) and he thoroughly pissed me off more than once. But he had a strong mind and wrote powerfully and well. But I’d never met him. How should I mourn him? (Incidentally, EPIC has created an advocacy fund in Martin’s name:

    I turn 70 this academic year. Some Scrogues are traveling the last stretches of road in our journeys. Others have long-standing health issues.

    Should one of us pass, I will grieve. Part of that grief, however, will be different: “I never met you. But I miss you.”

    Such are the downsides of the Internet.

  2. My sympathies for your loss, Gavin. The sense of loss of someone known in the online world is, I suspect, real emotionally – but somehow qualitatively different. I re-connected with a guy I’d gone to school with via FB a couple of years ago. Then he died unexpectedly of diabetes complications. I felt this weird duality of losing both a real life and online friend.

    Thanks for articulating this difficult emotional experience unique to the Internet Age so well.

  3. Sorry for you and the blogging world’s loss, Gavin. Yes, Denny, though I never met him in person, Martin’s death hit me hard, too. Would also note that, were it not for the Internet, I would have almost no friends.