I have, not surprisingly, been thinking about the death of Jim Lawrence yesterday and expanding it to thinking about the pros and cons of internet friendships in general.
My mother will never understand, nor will anyone who is not an active part of the internet community, that it is possible to make close friends on the internet, people you may or may not ever meet face to face.
Internet communication has erased distance and it is possible for someone like me, in California, to make a close friendship with someone like Peggy, living more than 9,000 miles away and to have that friendship be as real to me as my friendship with Char, for example. (Even before we met face to face)
I don't usually do internet live chat, but I can see where friendship between those who do can be even deeper. There was a time when I chatted with people and made another one of my best friends that way. Over a long week when Ron was sitting in Los Angeles with nothing to do but house sit for a mutual friend, he and I started to get acquainted and ended up pouring our hearts out to each other. Twenty years later, that relationship, which has had some pretty wild ups and downs, is still strong, though he lives in New Jersey and we haven't seen each other for years. (He's another internet friend that morphed into a face-to-face friend.)
It is difficult to explain to my mother the concept of different internet groups. There is the CompuServe group of women who became friends there and ultimately began to meet in various spots around the world, and who remain close friends, even though we are scattered across this country and in England and Scotland as well. In the past year and a half, that group has seen the death of three of us, and another sudden death two years ago.
I began to get involved with a group of Over-50 women on SwapBot and am starting to know some of the people there. That group experienced a loss last week and though I did not know the woman, who had become increasingly inactive because of her cancer before I became involved, I read messages from others expressing their grief at her death and know that this, for them, was a real personal loss as well.
There are wonderful things about internet relationships because they are not defined geographically. You can't borrow a cup of sugar or go out for coffee with your internet friend, but you can get to know each other very well, and, by extension, you also get to know their families, their pets, their friends.
And that is one of the things which make the death of an internet friend so difficult for those of us left behind. There is always the sadness of not being able to grieve together with other friends, though I have "attended" some internet memorials which have been quite meaningful and helpful.
The Facebook community is inadvertently redefining "wake" and "funeral" for internet friends. I've seen it happen before, but hadn't really put a name to it. When someone who was our internet friend dies, we all head to his or her facebook page to leave a message for or about the deceased...and then we check back later to see who else has said something, and maybe respond to that person. It's like a real wake, but without the ham.
The problem with an Internet death is when a friend like that disappears, so does their family. Jim Lawrence's family was very close and his blog posts were filled with family gatherings, the food his son, a professional chef, made, their pizza parties, the races that Jim ran with his daughter Jill, visits to New York to see his grandchildren, the historical places or just good restaurants he went to with wife Nancy. It made me happy to think that Jim died doing what he loved (racing). But now all of the Lawrence family has disappeared. We'll never hear from Jim or about his family again. That leaves a big hole because we became so invested in his life.
Our friend Bill died earlier this year. He was from the CompuServe group and was its only male participant, and kind of the big brother to all of us. An accountant, he happily answered tax questions for everyone and he told us about his day to day interactions with his aged mother, for whom he was the primary caregiver following his father's death. I wonder often how his mother is doing, but we will never know again. We all met her and cared about her, but there is nobody with whom we can check to find out how she is doing.
Lengthy deaths are difficult. We "watched" our friend Pat slowly drift away, a victim of lung cancer. She went pretty quickly from the time she finally told us that she was terminal, and we communicated with her daughter when she was no longer able to write herself, but now we will never know how her daughter is doing. Pat was one of my closest friends in that group because whenever Walt and I traveled to So. California, we usually stayed with her and enjoyed some lovely times together. She was with us the very first time I saw The Last Session, for example. I still can't quite wrap my head around the fact that she is gone, though it's almost a year now.
These are people with whom we have shared the pain of divorce, the birth of a grandchild, the thrill of the accomplishment of a child, the excitement of a great new job, the death of a parent. They are people to whom we have bared our souls and received incredible support when we are down and cheers when we do something wonderful.
It's something my cousin "D" will never understand. She was so furious with me for writing publicly about my concerns about my mother when the whole dementia thing began to become apparent. How dare I expose her to public ridicule, she felt. Not an internet person, D will never understand the importance of the support and comfort (and helpful advice) I get from readers of Funny the World when I bare my soul to all of you. She doesn't understand the sense of community that builds over the years.
It is worth noting that, with a journal begun in 1996, before anyone coined the term "blog," Jim is one of the grand old writers of On-Line Diaries. I believe he and Steve are among the first 10 or 20 diaries ever published on the Internet, which now has millions, if not billions of journaler and bloggers contributing.
I know that there are people all over the world who are grieving Jim's death. (Even Walt was grieving yesterday, and he knew Jim only from the comments he made on this journal.) Jim may never even have known they were readers, but they became invested in his life and the life of his family. We are mourning not only the death of "one of the good guys," but also the loss of his family as well.
The internet is a double edged sword, and sometimes it sucks.
My friend Toni Berhnard, author of "How to Be Sick" (a must read for people with chronic illness and their caregivers) is about to release a new book called "How to Wake up." Ironically, or perhaps serendipitously, I was reading that book for the purpose of reviewing it when it is released when I got word of Jim's death. Thus, this passage was very meaningful, and comforting to me:
“Everything that arises has the nature to pass away. The material world around us arises and passes away. Our thoughts and emotions arise and pass away. The Buddha’s words also remind us that, having been born, we are subject to illness, old age, death, and separation from our loved ones. This can be a sobering fact—one we may not want to hear—but insisting that life is otherwise only increases our unhappiness and suffering when these events come to pass, as they inevitably will."