I lost my oldest childhood friend to suicide 4 years ago. Devastated and heartbroken I immediately flew home to Chicago to attend her funeral. In the days, weeks and months following, I went through all the stages of mourning, including guilt for not having made time for her in the last year of her life. I was so consumed with my small business; I rarely made time for family and friends. Was I really that busy? Was it worth it? Only if I would have known…
Having relocated to Los Angeles, visiting her grave regularly has been not an option. However, her family keeps her Facebook page active. I send her messages on her birthday., on the anniversary of her passing, and on days when I just feel the need to reach out to her. It was then that I began digesting this new outlet for mourning. I am so grateful to have a place to communicate with her even if it is through Facebook.
More recently, I learned about a motorcycle racer’s death through mutual friends whom I follow on Instagram. I did not know him, but he was clearly very loved and held in high esteem in the world of motorcycle racing. He died while racing, which in and of itself, is a hard thing for fellow racers to accept. However, having worked and played in the motorcycle industry for over 20 years I have mourned many motorcycle fatalities. But my reaction to this one surprised me. The day he died, my Instagram feed was flooded with posts honoring the fallen rider. Most of them shared a black and white photo of him posing in his race leathers. I did not recognize his face or his name. On Facebook, I saw there was a GoFundMe account set up for the family he left behind. I donated to it as I have done for many others in the past. A few days later his wife posted something from his Instagram account. It popped up in my feed and suddenly I recognized his handle. I clicked on it and discovered I was following him, and he was following me. In that moment I felt a deep sadness I reviewed a few of my race photos and I saw that he had ‘liked’ every single one of them. My eyes began to water.
Aside from having mutual friends, being a fellow rider/racer, and following one another’s Instagram profiles, did he and I have a real connection? It felt like we did by the way I responded emotionally. Other than being human and having compassion, why was I sad? Why did I feel this loss so profoundly? I wondered if I ever ‘liked’ any of his photos, it made me even sadder to think that I didn’t click ‘like’ on any of his pictures, and how nice it was of him to ‘like’ mine.
Looking back further though my old posts, I noticed a pattern, he only ‘liked’ my posts that involved motorcycle racing. I checked to see how long he had been following me, and that too upset me. But why? Would I miss him? Miss his ‘likes’? No, so how was I so affected by this digital relationship?
Looking for answers, I reached out to Federica Fornaciari, a Social Media Scholar, whom received her Ph. D. in Communications from the University of Illinois at Chicago.
“Technology is a vehicle that helps us to connect. But technology does not really change the nature of our relationships, it simply provides a new ground, a sort of ‘spaceless space’ where we can experience and cultivate friendships.”
The traditional distinction between “online” and “in person” does not apply to the relationships that we form and cultivate through social media today. We build our relationships upon shared values, beliefs, and experiences – not upon the physical space that we may have shared.
Once a connection is established, the social norms that regulate relationships are similar online and offline. Including the emotions that accompany loss, death and mourning.”
The way I see it, I have three tiers of cyber friends. Tier-One: Those whom I have met in person after having been connected with though social media in one way or another. Tier-Two: Those who I have had dialogue with on social media, but never actually met in person.
Tier-Three: Those who may ‘friend’ or ‘follow’ me or who I ‘friend’ or ‘follow,’ which I have never met or had any interaction with whatsoever.
It is the third tier that has raised these questions.
It also leads to the matter of etiquette. When is it ok to post a photo or share a memory of the deceased? Is that what the family would want? Is it better that more people learn of their loved one’s passing? Have sites like GoFundMe replaced the condolence card or the gesture of sending flowers? Is it as impactful, or is it just plain different?
We are not provided with manual on how to deal with loss, we all respond differently, so perhaps there is no real standard for etiquette. But we need to consider creating one because technology is not going away. It is and will forever integral into our lives moving forward.
Has anyone else had a similar experience they would like to share? I would be interested in hearing about it.