Over the past week, I’ve been watching the grief over two deaths unfold in real time. My college community has been mourning the loss of our friend Jeff McCain, and many people I know from Twitter and the blogosphere have been grieving the death of Lisa Bonchek Adams.
Both of them had cancer; both of them died far too soon. And in the wake of their deaths, many of their loved ones have taken to social media to express grief and to honor these two lives.
Jeff and I were friends before Facebook existed. (It came into being during our college years.) Our mutual friends are people we know in real life, from that patch of ground in West Texas where we studied, sang, laughed and cried together. My husband lived across the hall from Jeff our freshman year; my sister and her circle of friends all know him, too. And since we’re scattered all over the country and can’t gather to mourn in person, we come to Facebook to mourn together.
Dozens of people have posted brief sentiments or shared photos. Some of us, like me, wrote longer tributes and shared them as a way of marking Jeff’s death and, yes, celebrating his life. (He was, as I have said, a person who carried joy around with him. I have no doubt he’d approve of us recounting all the funny stories we can think of.) I’ve seen a similar trend with Lisa’s death – dozens of tweets and a fair few blog posts honoring her life, as well as mixed (but passionate) reactions to a couple of pieces in the New York Times.
Besides wishing we didn’t have to do this – because these deaths are fundamentally unfair and heartbreaking – I’ve been thinking about how we grieve together, in the age of social media. These sites where we share so much of our lives have become a new forum for public mourning. I’ve seen it happen after several tragedies: the Boston Marathon bombing, Hurricane Sandy, the events in Ferguson. We come together on social media to share our hurt, our outrage and our deep sadness.
It can be cathartic and helpful – a way to reach out to one another and say, “Me too.” It can also, eventually, become overwhelming. My husband and I have both felt the need to step back from Facebook at various times this week. We’ve sat at our kitchen table for hours, trading stories about Jeff and talking through our emotions. Eventually, we’ve needed to step away even from that. Grief has a saturation point, and it’s not something you work through in a couple of days.
I’ve also been turning back to a few beloved poems, including Marie Howe’s “What the Living Do.” But, fittingly, I discovered another poem this week via Twitter – “The Mower” by Philip Larkin. Its last lines sum up, for me, what this communal grieving is all about:
The first day after a death, the new absenceIs always the same; we should be carefulOf each other, we should be kindWhile there is still time.