A friend of mine died a few days ago. I got the news at sunset, just as I was turning on lamps around my house. He and I grew up together. We went to the same grade school and saw each other at holidays, even while life took us down different paths.
We had re-connected on a regular basis through Facebook about a year ago, just after he underwent open-heart surgery for a valve problem. A second surgical procedure followed, but he seemed to have recovered. A couple of months ago, we met for coffee and nothing about him seemed frail.
Then the news came that he was found in bed, having died in his sleep.
No matter how often we go through the experience of losing someone, it always feels unfamiliar and strange. We wander through rooms, not sure what to do. The tears come, but not always right away. We struggle to wrap ourselves around the absence of someone who was just here, so alive and present. Where are they, we wonder, even though we don’t really expect an answer.
That night, I went on his Facebook page to see if others knew about his passing and had posted anything. I saw two rather oblique messages addressed to him, saying, “I’ll miss you,”. I posted a similarly vague message and within minutes got a Facebook query from someone wanting to know what I meant by that. I didn’t want to be the one to break the news on Facebook, so I deleted that post.
But by the next morning, his page was full of messages -- heartfelt and heartbreaking, from longtime friends and newly-acquired Facebook friends, plus expressions of gratitude from family members. Days later, it’s still going on.
What’s striking is that every message is addressed to him. It’s one of the ways we get through grief – by talking to the person who’s gone, by keeping him alive in our hearts and thoughts and believing that, somehow, he can hear us.
What’s become clear to me is that, along with all the other roles Facebook plays in our lives, it is also our Wailing Wall when someone we care about dies. It’s something we’ve needed in our culture for a long time. In Israel, people go to the Wailing Wall and place notes to God in the cracks between stones. The Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. – the smooth river of black stone etched with so many names – is the closest thing we have to that. People take pieces of paper and do tracings of their loved one’s name. For those who lived through that war, and lost people to it, the memorial has provided a physical place to go…to remember those who left too soon and to honor the grief that never goes away.
Obviously Facebook is not a physical place, although it feels like it, and other issues come up, like when or how to remove someone’s page after death if the family members so desire. Facebook’s policy is to “memorialize” profiles after someone dies, removing them from public search results and sealing them from any log-in attempts, yet leaving the wall open for friends and family to post messages. They will also completely remove the page if requested, but to ward off any inappropriate actions, they require proof that the person has died.
One person posted on my friend’s wall a verse which is inscribed on the poet Rumi’s tombstone. It includes the line, “Ours is not a caravan of despair.” It seems, in looking at our modern day Wailing Wall, that by having a place to write to someone whose leaving still seems unreal, we are given a way out of our despair. Maybe just for a while, because the pain will always find us, but those moments of respite matter. Grief is many things, including sweet memories that need to be shared, and messages we hope drift past this world into whatever lies beyond.
We might not have a stone wall nearby, but we have Facebook.