I learned about it on Facebook, a particularly cold way to discover a distant friend was just put on life support. I followed up as best I could, texting those closest to him and emailing anyone else who might know something. I didn’t call because, well, it’s 2019. Who talks by choice on the phone these days? Even if we want to speak to someone, the odds are low anyone picks up in this age of telemarketing harassment.
I grew up at the tail end of the Happy Days era; the Joanie Loves Chachi era, to be exact. I follow Twitter only to see the commentary on the President’s tweets. I Snapchat with no one, my Tumblr last tumbled during the second Bush administration, and my Instagram account might as well have tumbleweeds as my profile picture. I’m just old now, I guess (hence my use of Facebook, the Western Union of social media for anyone over 40).
As integral as social media has become for hermits like me, tethering us to the outside world in spite of ourselves, it’s also become an unwelcome bell toll signaling bad news. Sprinkled in between posts about squirrel on skateboards or that distant aunt’s knitting club are the emotional knife jabs of family pets being put down or the loss of another high school friend. As I get older, scrolling through my news feed feels more like tiptoeing through a minefield.
Technology makes our interactions with our own mortality much more immediate. We used to find out about someone’s passing after-the-fact, and, if we were lucky, in time to attend the wake or funeral. Social media shows us these chapters in real time, from unexpected diagnosis through fundraising for treatment to the heroic fights at the end.
It’s the difference between looking at lamb chops on the menu and actually witnessing a lamb’s birth, naming it, lovingly raising it, then watching it led to the slaughterhouse so it can appear on that menu. Our reaction to death is proportionate to our intimacy with the life that preceded it. Whenever someone claims most social media “friendships” are artificial or superficial at best, I ask them how they felt when John Lennon or Princess Diana died; then I ask how well they knew either personally.
However distant, previous generations were spared the sheer number of end-of-life journeys to which we are now a participant. Future studies will no doubt focus on whether this enhanced exposure to death adds or detracts from the quality of life. How many things can we allow behind the emotional walls we build to protect ourselves; how many opportunities for true empathy until it’s too much?
In the meantime, I pull out a card from the stack we now have to curate: birthday cards, condolences, graduations, births. The irony that modern technology alerts me to events I respond to with the ancient art of letter writing is not lost on me, but I can’t communicate the depths of my sorrow, joy or empathy on that cold, lifeless news feed. That has all the intensity and permanence of painting on ice.
In spite of my practiced reticence to stray from the shadows at the corners of my world, I reach out and offer what support I can to my recently stricken friend. It’s not much, but it’s more than any Facebook emoji could offer.
At the very least, it’s what Joanie or Chachi would have done.