Grief in the Digital Age

1924318_57463667749_6077_nThey say things come in threes. This time, three talented, funny, sweet guys I cared about—all in their early 40s, all musicians—are gone within three months.

I manage a number of social media accounts for my job, so when I check Facebook, I’m genuinely not wasting time at work, usually. But as many know, company pages are often connected to personal ones, so when I logged in at my desk first thing this morning, it was my news feed I saw first.

I picked up my phone to text my husband Peyton about what I had just seen, and it simultaneously rang. He was calling me. We are often synergistic this way. And we both knew and loved these three guys.

Today, we jointly reeled over the news that a mutual college chum—one of my first band mates and a guy who lived with and shared a wall with Peyton during our time at school (through which he often heard Helmet cranked at full volume as late at 3 a.m.)—had succumbed to a particularly aggressive form of lung cancer.

Peyton and I had been shocked when we saw the first Facebook post that Max had been diagnosed, back in June. In between, we had sent him brief notes of encouragement and laughed when he posted the cover of the record Dopesmoker by the band Sleep with the caption, “Chemo music” while receiving treatment, and changed his profile picture to an illustration of an angry-eyed kid with a cigarette dangling from its lips. “Did Max never quit smoking?” we asked the air. “Regardless, shit shit shit.” While it felt like a punch to the gut each time we thought about it, there was so much else to think about.

We weren’t in close contact with Max, and hadn’t physically seen him in probably twenty years. We had that kind of semi-faux connection that Facebook breeds, comforting and easy, real in some ways, but not so real in others, better than nothing, for sure. I had seen photos of his sons, cute twin boys, and clicked “thumbs up” on his occasional posts with real affection, but we hadn’t exchanged more than one line of text in a couple of decades. It was 1992, maybe, when we first held band practice in the basement of Franklin Patterson Hall on the Hampshire College campus with two other classmates, and probably 1993 when we played our last show, calling ourselves Backwash. Classy. In 1994, he and Peyton graduated and went their separate ways.

But when I saw his wife’s post announcing his death on his Facebook page for his friends, and then talked about him with Peyton while crouching uncomfortably on a step outside my shared office space for a modicum of privacy, I fell apart—sobbing in a way that was far from acceptable for a professional setting. I spent more than half an hour in a stall in the women’s room, grabbing fistfuls of the single-ply toilet paper over and over, trying to get my act together, but couldn’t.

I felt especially lucky I work with a bunch of sensitive women when I told them had to go home.

I spent the day crying about Max, and also about Kevin, who died last month, and Jim, who died the month before. I also cried because, Why them and not us? and We’re not old enough for this yet! and What the fuck.

When they each left this life, I hadn’t felt like I could give myself the space. Or maybe I didn’t quite have the energy. Though I’m not usually one to shy away from looking at the dark matter of this life, I had far too many feelings and far too much else logistically to juggle. It was inconvenient. It felt almost wrong feeling so terrible too. Others were so much closer to Max and Kevin and Jim. I went through the familiar feeling of not deserving sadness. But when you ignore these things, they come back and bite. The pile-up was simply too much.

I allowed myself a whiskey at 10 a.m. And another at 10:30. I wanted to be toasting these guys, but instead I was just trying to calm down a little.

Each of their Facebook pages is still up, turned into little digital memorials for our 2016 social media way of life. They contain lots of notes and micro-memories and photographs. When we’re all so spread apart geographically, these virtual spots give us a sort of grave-like place to visit.

It does help a bit, even though it’s weird. To be able to find that old picture of Max and me, back when I had a nose ring and was just learning how to properly sing into a mic, back when he was showing me power chords and we were covering Black Sabbath songs badly and writing some originals badly and having a great time doing it. He’s looking over at me as if I don’t suck, I think. It’s nice. It reminds me who we were.

I go over and “visit” good ol’ Jim and Kevin while I’m online too. I hadn’t seen Jim in quite a while either—though only a couple of years, not 20—and I saw Kevin two days before he died. Still, it feels surreal that they are gone and also not gone due to this channel where fragments of their lives continue on in the Cloud like some kind of Star Trek thing we would never have imagined back in college.

These tiny souvenirs feel quite precious at the moment. The two pictures Max’s wife posted last night, the ones she took before his hair fell out from the chemo—one serious, one smiling—as she said, are a gift.

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