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Grief in the digital age

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Tuesday, January 07, 2014
Jennifer Levesque illustration

I first crossed paths with John Sims on an archaeological dig in Switzerland. It took me a few hours to figure out that he spoke English—not because he was a man of few words, but because his asides and comments arrived as odd-rhythmed mumbles he seemed to deliver primarily to amuse himself.

When we ended up working in closer proximity, I made out amid the mumbles some words of French and English. I listened more closely, and sure enough, this was some variety of the Queen’s English, peppered with a few words borrowed from the local lingo. Not, mind, that Sims would have taken kindly to being tagged with anything smacking of the English monarchy. He was British, yes, but a Welshman who shared with many of his countrymen a pronounced dislike for his Anglo neighbors and their colonizing ways.

In the months of digging up Bronze Age pig teeth and foundation stones, John and I hit it off. Somehow he didn’t mind the uncouth ways of a Yank some 13 years younger than he was. Or maybe he just liked that I laughed at his jokes once I could make sense of those Welsh-flavored syllables. He told me about his past, a tale of broken marriage and misfortune made worse by the Welsh miners’ strike of the 1980s.

After Switzerland, we stayed in touch via snail mail, and I looked forward to his long, deadly witty missives, which arrived in my mailbox at a good clip. We traded back and forth for years. When the Internet became ubiquitous, our exchanges moved to email, and the pace moved up a few notches. Somehow, in the wake of several address changes, we lost touch. It took a few years more to reconnect with a man whose name was, unfortunately, shared by many another resident of the U.K. When, at last, my detective work paid off, the emails resumed their former volume, and an old scriptwriting collaboration even came back to life.

 

By then, I’d come to know a lot about John Sims, and he about me. There’s something about a friendship that exists in word and not in person, a geographically distant friendship, that creates an intimate space all its own. I could talk freely about things I wouldn’t bring up even to close friends I saw in person. There was little danger of leakage around sensitive subjects, and no cost to revealing truths unglimpsed by those nearer by.

Still, a friendship fostered via glowing pixels is in other ways far less complete. Was the John I knew different from the one those geographically close to him knew? My picture of John’s immediate world was only a sample of sorts. It was edited and narrated by him through a limited medium.

We talked advice in car repairs; I got word when he’d finished part of his interior paint job; we traded drafts of a daft sitcom. Yet of his relationship to his sons, of his second marriage and the loss of his second wife, I had only written glimpses. Ours was a peculiar kind of friendship, but it was one I prized. I counted him, in his way, among those I know best.

I was shocked when, a month or so ago, I got a message from John’s nephew. John had died. I knew he’d been sick. An emphysema diagnosis turned out to be wrong, but I knew of no newer diagnosis. Beyond that, I had no idea what happened to my friend. (I have since learned that a lung cancer diagnosis came only a day before his death.)

A difficult truth soon emerged. I was surprised and saddened by my friend’s sudden departure, one that had come only a few weeks after his last message (a message which intimated nothing of what was to come). I lost a confidante, a true friend. Yet I had almost no way to express it. No one around me knew John at all. His family didn’t know me from anyone—I was just an address in a contacts list. (Thank heavens they’d sent word to his contacts.) I couldn’t attend his funeral in Swansea. My grief was bottled up, isolated. Who would understand? Who would share it?

I visited John’s obituary page at a South Wales news site. At the bottom, I was invited to light a candle in his memory. I was offered a choice of virtual candles to bring to flickering .gif life. I could leave a message, even animate my message (with what, I wondered). Funereal icons spread across the screen.

It was as disheartening as the cassette player that brayed out organ music beside my stepgrandfather’s casket.

I felt a little sick.

 

It’s inevitable that, like most everything else, mourning will turn yet more digital. Our distancing from death will gain an extra layer of unreality. Our mortality might seem yet more deferred, safely confined to a screen. Our drive to push death away has, after all, long been in evidence. The Victorian habit of dying in bed at home, surrounded by loved ones, has been scrapped in favor of hospitals and funeral homes, of rituals in which the reality of death is nearly an unmentionable, a whisper amid chatter of arrangements and costs.

We add to the aura of fear around the subject more and more. Most dinner parties don’t include cheerful discussions of who’s going to get cremated. All the same, recent years have seen the rise of “death cafes,” gatherings of strangers who want to talk about the subject no one else does. Outside of such face-to-face revolutionary movements, the main options for death discussion seem to be either old-school Harold and Maude morbid obsession or the new road of icons and apps to keep it safely in the controlled realm of the head-down consumer.

The connected world does foster real connections, different flavors or no. If it wasn’t for the Internet, I would never have re-found an important friend. Without it, I would not have known of his death. There are ways it will truly aid those who mourn. It’s inevitable that funerals have been attended via Skype already. Such virtual experiences have a useful place, but the distancing they invoke might, if we are not careful, increasingly supplant the real. The consequences, whatever they are, probably won’t be helpful.

I wasn’t quite ready for the brave new world of online grief. I couldn’t bring myself to light a virtual candle. Still, I am, as much as anyone, a citizen of the virtual world: I wrote John a final email. It seemed the only reasonable response. But putting “beyond the Valley of the Shadow” in the send line only gets you an error. In the end, I printed it, took it outside, doused it in lighter fluid, and turned it to smoke. I watched my email thread away, a fading fractal in a big sky.•

Comments (5)
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We have just read your column regarding John Sims .I am the brother of John and would like to thank you of your kind words mentioned about my brother.

We all miss his funny sense of humour. He never said to much about his archaeolical digs.

I am glad to know he had a friend that understood his humour The family miss him daily and sometimes forgets hes still not with us.

Posted by colin sims on 1.8.14 at 13:55

Thank you for reading, Colin. I am very glad to have known your brother.

Posted by JH on 1.8.14 at 15:16

I would also like to add my thanks , I am his elder sister and still miss him very much and as my brother Colin said, find it hard to accept he is no longer there.

Posted by Linda White on 1.8.14 at 15:19

I am sorry for your loss. I had a similar experience recently. I left a comment on his obituary website, and appreciated that it was there for me to do so.

I want to comment on this bit, "It’s inevitable that funerals have been attended via Skype already. Such virtual experiences have a useful place, but the distancing they invoke might, if we are not careful, increasingly supplant the real. The consequences, whatever they are, probably won’t be helpful."

We live in the now, and right now, the 'consequences' of having a means to mourn from a distance have already been, and are continuing to be, helpful.

I see this as a positive, useful and potentially emotionally healing use of technology. It will also likely be used by callous people who think attending funerals via Skype, even though they could be there in person, will suffice.


Posted by Tracy Austin on 1.9.14 at 8:40

Good points, Tracy. I agree that being able to mourn at a distance, if limited, is useful. Perhaps it is not sufficiently clear that it is only the consequences of further distancing from mortality that I think won't be helpful.

Posted by JH on 1.9.14 at 11:39
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