by Terra_Cide, HSM Editor-in-Chief
You never forget about the first time you hear of a friend’s passing.
May 1, 1999 – that was the day I lost my friend, Patty. We had known each other since the first grade. That was fifteen years of our respective lives. There are countless memories I could recall about our growing up. I could tell you about the horse shows we attended together, or the time we had to slather clay from a creekbed all over our bodies to keep the biting flies at bay during a hike through the woods, only to show up at her house just as her grandparents from New York pulled into the driveway. I could tell you about how she nearly lost herself to drugs during our teenaged years and had only been clean and sober since earlier that year. She was killed in a head-on car collision on her way home from work, all because a driver was too impatient to wait for the car in front of him to turn right and pulled out around, right into oncoming traffic.
Right into her.
She would have been twenty that following June.
She was the first childhood friend of mine to have died. It’s a little alarming to me to think that nearly as many years have passed since she died as how long we knew each other.
Then there was September 10, 2001. I was just getting comfortable with the idea of making friends online and participating in online communities when one among us took his own life. His name was Adam, but I knew him better as Hermetic, his user name. That was the first time I ever experienced the death of someone I only knew from the internet. One minute, you’re in a chatbox with each other and friends, laughing it up, and the next day, gone. Nothing remains, except for his writings, and the feeling that if we had only read between the lines of sardonic humor, if we had only done something – anything – more, or different, things might have turned out differently.
The surreality of it all made it seem almost as if we all dreamt Hermetic up, except the memories I have of the collective panic that rippled through the community that day, when he had contacted a few of us, informing people what he was going to do, and the frantic, pleading messages those people reported leaving on his phone, which he had turned off. There is nothing dream-like about the grim realities of suicide, only the gut-wrenching feeling of being helpless to do anything about it when there’s miles of continent and ether in between. Nor was it particularly fair that the very next day and for many days thereafter, it seemed the whole world was wrapped up in its own grief and horror as the 9/11 attacks occurred. None of us really got a chance to mourn or go through the whole process of grieving for Hermetic properly.
Besides friends on three different continents, Hermetic left behind a wife and two small children. It’s hard to believe they’d be teenagers now. Had he lived, he would be 39 this year.
It’s only been a little over two years since the death of MementoMorti, the first – and thus far, only – Home friend of mine that has passed away. At the time, I felt it was necessary to write about him, since aside from his real name, location and a couple of dates, no one else had. He died on May 1st as well. I’m beginning to hate that day.
Two years – it almost seems like another lifetime.
However, the memories – the laughter and hijinks, the grief and regret – those still come by and visit from time to time.
Last year, I watched my father pass away. Diagnosed with end stage stomach cancer, he had no interest in trying to play hero by attempting to beat the odds with treatment. All he wished for was to be comfortable. As I looked upon that hospice bed, looking at that frail, old man lying there (which, at 69, he wasn’t all that old), I can remember thinking, that’s not my father. The ravages of cancer had made him that unrecognizable to me. It was only when the funeral manager wheeled him out, his body covered with the flag, that it really hit home.
I would consider myself lucky if those were the only deaths I’ve experienced in my three and a half decades on this planet. I wish I could say that I’ve only known two friends online who have passed away. Family, schoolmates, and friends – both in the real world and online – I’ve said final goodbyes to more than just these four. I do consider myself lucky that of those friends who passed and I only knew them online, that I learned of their deaths at all. More often than not, online friends who pass away just disappear.
When the Home community learned yesterday of SnidelyKWhiplash’s passing, it shook everyone, from those that knew him well to those that didn’t know him at all. He was well liked by those who were a part of the same clubs as he, such as Incognito, and by others who called him friend. Even if all you knew of him was a passing comment in Home or on Facebook, you felt better for seeing it. His generosity was genuine and selfless. And he was man enough to know his mistakes and own up to them. That’s integrity so rare these days you don’t forget it.
It casts a spotlight on a question that’s been around ever since people started making friends online: when we, or someone we know dies, how do we let friends know? Most people by now have plans in place that, should they pass away, there is a list of people to notify and sites to visit to post messages. This is a strategy that’s been really starting to take hold in recent years with those who have built up a sizeable amount of online friendships. Take a look at your own friends list on the PSN, think about how many of those individuals you think ought to know about the event of your death, and you theirs. As grim as it sounds, it may be the strongest measure of your friendship with those individuals.
Are the emotions we feel any different – any less – than if we had known the person in real life? No.
What really is worth pondering is how do we go about dealing with the loss of a person who, although was very real, only truly existed to us in the way they made us feel with their words, pixels, and if we’re lucky, their voice. Then again, isn’t that similar in a sense to how it is with people we meet face to face? We may never know the details surrounding our virtual friends’ deaths in the same way we would know our real life ones, but it does not make the sense of loss any less significant.
At least in Home, we have a unique setting where we can come together to mourn and express our grief as a community, much like we would in reality. There are places where we can visit, recalling fond memories of our deceased friends. There are mutual friends to share in the grieving, as well as the celebration of memories, and from there begin to heal. Although we will never see their username sign in again, they will live on in our memories. After the sense of loss and sadness have passed, after even Home itself has passed, as long as we continue to remember them, Snidely and other Home friends who are no longer with us will live on.
It seems that only in times of death and crisis can we fully comprehend the depth of online relationships. They are more than just usernames and pixels, more than just random people you hang out with. Online relationships are different – but not less – than any real-world relationships of similar value. And we feel their loss just as acutely.