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On Death and Distance

Last night, Tricia emailed me to say that David, a wonderful man we knew from an online forum to which we all once belonged, has died due to complications from neurosurgery. They are planning to take him off life support tomorrow.

I hadn’t been in touch with David in years, not since our online forum dissipated, as they often do.  Still, he was one of my favourite people from that group.  I had the privilege to meet him in person about 10 years ago. I can still remember his smile when he came up to me and asked my name (my username, to be precise!). He was one of those people who smiled with his whole face: everything just crinkled up and he looked so happy, you simply couldn’t help but smile back.

And now he’s gone.

Online relationships do funny things to the big moments in life.  We share news of marriages, births, adventures, and promotions with people we may never meet face-to-face, but with whom we feel just as close – if not closer – as we do to the people we have offline relationships with. In a way, those moments are amplified, despite the geographic distance among us.

However, when it comes to death, for me, the amplification effect feels… different.

I didn’t receive a phone call from Robin, David’s best friend who was also a part of our online community. In fact, I didn’t even know he was having brain surgery.  I did not visit him in the hospital, and I will not be there at his funeral. I know this is true for most of us from our old online group; the news about David is being shared via email, Facebook and other social media, among people who are literally scattered across the globe.

Tricia tells me that it’s comforting to see all of the condolences, prayers and memories being posted on Facebook by people who mostly knew David virtually.  I imagine that it is. Sharing our grief amplifies it in a way that makes it easier, not harder, to deal with.   Still, it’s not enough.  At least, not for me.

I think that death is one of those moments that requires in-person community.  As strong as the bonds formed in an online community can be, I think sharing actual, physical space with the people who knew your friend in ways that are different from the way you knew them is “better”.  I’m not entirely sure why… perhaps it has something to do with getting to know a fuller version of your friend, because the limits of online communication mean that we only ever see a particular, partial version of them.

I think of Robin, and I can’t even imagine what she is going through right now.  If I recall correctly, she and David were friends for over 30 years. I know, though, that over the next few days and weeks, she’ll be surrounded by many of the people who knew David differently than the way she did. (I think it’s also safe to say that a few of those people will be from our old forum.)  And I know that this is what will help her through her grief.

As for me, I will just say a prayer of thanks that I had the chance to know David.  He was one of the kindest, most loving people I have ever known, and I’m grateful that I got to call him my friend.

Rest in peace, my friend, and in the knowledge that you are deeply, deeply loved.

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