A couple years ago a girl I went to high school with took her own life. We didn’t have many classes together except for Film Studies, which if we’re being honest, while we sat next to each other, we both usually slept through. We spent the night together on someone’s basement couches during a string of luck known as multiple snow days in a row. We ate lunch at the same table every other day my senior year. Friendships play out; people go their separate ways. Within hours of her last breath I knew that she was gone. I got a little teary and thought, “she did seem so sad lately.”
Just a few short years earlier and hers would have been a tragedy I would hear about from my mom or a co-worker, someone who had read the day’s obituaries in the local paper and put it together that she and I had graduated from the same high school in the same year. They would have asked, “Did you know this girl? She died.” And with a cloudy recognition her name would invoke a familiar face, maybe memory would pull up a conversation we had about prom over cafeteria fries. But, even though I hadn’t seen her since we received our diplomas, at the time of her passing I had been watching her for years.
If you were around for the beginnings of Facebook you know what I mean when I say she was one of those people who immediately sent friend requests to everyone from our high school graduating class. Of course I accepted. Only a few months before we were making “WTF?” faces to each other over an unnecessarily difficult final film exam. Yet, as the time between that last school bell and the present got longer and longer, I kept her in my little online social sphere.
It sounds cliche but I guess we all (that first Facebook generation) watched each other grow up. I watched her picture on my screen go from trying to look cute to business casual. Saw her play with her dogs. Fall in and out of love. Compose frustrated words about work and chronic pain. Watched as she clicked “post” on words that someone, somewhere must now know were for them, begging them to help her. And it’s weird because her death hit me harder than I thought it should–even though I know those words weren’t for me–or really for so many of us that inevitably saw them. How should grief look for those of us merely ambiently aware of a life now cut short?
In college, I became quite taken with the idea of “ambient awareness,” or, the term sociologists coined for the peripheral social awareness we experience by participating in online social media. Within this online world we have an omnipresent knowledge and constant connection with our social circle. And this notion seems counter-intuitive when you look at the process of gaining and maintaining a social circle in generations prior. In childhood you have a whole slew of friends–from school, the neighborhood, summer camp, ballet class, soccer team. At the end of your K-12 schooling you’re at the peak. You move away from home–maybe a few of these hometown friendships remain but not many. You replace the old friends with new. Maybe you move again. Lose touch with more people. Meet a few new. And on and on…never quite regaining enough ground to maintain the sheer volume of friendships you once had. But that was ok. In fact, social scientists assured these past generations this was normal, scientifically natural. Now, imagine having a level of awareness regarding every single one of those acquaintances you acquired on your path to your tiny but acceptable social group. Imagine never shedding yourself of the neighborhood kid who shared their scooter or the girl who lived 2 doors down in your sophomore dorm. Knowing details about their lives that ranged from mundane to intimate. Sociologists now compare this unprecedented, snowballing trajectory to being stuck in a small town for the rest of your life.
In his New York Times article, Clive Thompson said ambient awareness is, “very much like being physically near someone and picking up on mood through the little things.” Meaning, as we scroll through someone’s digital information we are noting tone through micro-blogging, pictures, shares and comments. The banal informs a larger narrative. Thompson argues:
“This is the paradox of ambient awareness. Each little update — each individual bit of social information — is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane. But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends’ and family members’ lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting.”
And when the dots create a dark formation, a somber painting you didn’t necessarily want to see but couldn’t turn away from, the portrait of the life feels just as real, even though physically lacking.
News of a stillborn baby has felt like a kick in the gut because I watched a woman “like” baby photos and share articles about natural family planning. Smiled when she finally announced her pregnancy–seemingly to me. Rolled my eyes at an ultra-sound picture (but was secretly endeared). Laughed at her candid and far-from-flattering description of her pregnant-self. Furrowed my brow with worry when she announced the inactivity inside of her.
A grieving father’s words have felt like sickening voyeurism; his pain too raw and intimate to be included in. Yet with each passing day I would go back for more until eventually I could see the storm passing and the light breaking through. I felt a weight release from my chest at the thought of his healing.
This grief is something past generations have not had to navigate but that doesn’t make it any less real. We are sort of charting new waters here, so I suppose, what I’m saying, is let’s chart them well. I was profoundly touched a few months ago when, yet again, my computer screen was the bearer of tragic news, and I learned another life had been cut too short. In the days that followed I watched a whole community of peripherally aware individuals exemplify kindness and goodness. Their grief manifested into a beautiful display of solidarity, stories detailing memories, and even spreadsheets for donations of food called-in from thousands of miles away. I watched as the constraints of physical presence melted away. Perhaps, in the end, that’s the best and the easiest thing we can do. Be present without needing to be physically present. Isn’t that how the person at the other end of our grief reached us to begin with?
(Painting by Cynthia Angeles)