How Do We Mourn on Social Media?

by Bethanne Patrick
Originally Published: 

That seems appropriate, as I met her through social media—Twitter, to be exact—in 2009. We connected by exchanging 140-character messages, sometimes just to each other, sometimes with groups of up to six or more other Twitter users.

Eventually, we all started to make dates to meet “IRL”—in real life. As it happened, that year and the next were two in which I and a couple of other friends in the book publishing world decided to host a series of lunch gatherings in which my friend and many others participated. Several dozen people who would never have otherwise encountered each other bonded over three-course lunches and forged friendships that have, in many cases, grown in the past five years.

Some friendships faded. Others failed. Some blossomed, wilted, then bloomed again; some became stronger, others remained merely cordial. Through it all, we knew that my friend—our friend—was sick. We knew because she told us: She blogged publicly and frankly about her experience of breast cancer. She wrote so that other people experiencing diseases that rob them of time and dignity would know that they were not alone or without value. She crafted calm, meaningful posts to share her own values: love of family, appreciation of beauty, and a deep commitment to advocacy and service.

In 2012 she announced—calmly, stoically—that her breast cancer, which everyone believed was firmly in remission, had returned with a vengeance. It was Stage 4 and metastatic.

Through it all, we knew that our friend was sick because she told us: She blogged publicly and frankly about her experience of breast cancer.

I have had enough experience with mortal illness to know it when I see it, which is why I knew at a 2013 dinner with my friend that it would be the last time I was able to see her at her best. Her best, even with medication and pain and thoughts of how to die, would put most others’ to shame. She was stylish, well groomed, interesting, and interested, as delighted with her children’s last-minute concerns about what we’d be ordering at their favorite Italian restaurant as she was with the details of my trip. Even with her pain and fatigue, my friend always, always looked outward. She was a woman who made the most of every moment.

That is how she lived her life. It is not simply how she conducted her death.

It’s an important distinction, now. Many, many people learned about my friend after her illness returned, and they knew her mainly through her blog—nothing wrong with either of those things. On that blog and in her posts on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, she often repeated her mantras about finding beauty and making the most of each day; it is no wonder that people would identify those mantras with her health’s decline.

What made my friend so special to so many people is that she died exactly as she lived. She did not attempt to become better or different for her online persona, or simply because she knew the rough timeframe of her life.

Ours may be the first generation to confront the reality of death through social media, and not just through announcements on social media, but through friendships made and nurtured in our peculiar online amalgam of news, snark, trivia, multimedia, and yes—real, shared connections.

One of the first things I heard was: “How well did you know her?”

Over the last three days, I’ve spoken or messaged with several of our mutual friends, as well as other friends of mine who knew that this friend was special to me. One of the first things I heard was: “How well did you know her?”

How well did I know her? I saw her in person at three lunches with groups and one-on-one at a few brunches, and 18 months ago I traveled to her home so we could go out to dinner. Many others knew her better. But I feel our bond was genuine.

I know that the query itself is almost always benign. People want to assess how sad you are, whether a grief is largely theoretical, or based on deep knowledge. But how can they assess this if I can’t even begin to do so?

The world of online friendship allows each mourner to create her own museum of memories: For one person, it might be a single line; another, a score of photographs. It’s all at once weird and inclusive and isolating, and little of it lives up to any real-world measurements of loss. One person shares a close up, but knew my friend superficially. Another writes a few words that sound formulaic, but knew my friend better than most of her family members did.

There is no yardstick for grief. I’m sharing these thoughts now so that someone else out there, shattered by my—our—friend’s death, will realize that her encounter or encounters with her were special, too. We can share as much as we like, we can celebrate each others’ experiences, but the bit that is all our own gives shape and meaning and beauty to the rest, rather than the other way around. I adore seeing everyone’s photos and reminiscences, but if I did not have my own, they would be no more significant than a photo montage of a celebrity.

Lisa Adams died last week. Lisa Adams was my friend. I miss her. I hope that my thoughts help you understand why. If you didn’t, I wish you could have known her.

Lisa Bonchek Adams, a noted cancer blogger, died on March 5th, 2015. You can read the final post announcing her death here, find information about her memorial service here, and read her New York Times obituary here. Adams is survived by her husband, Clarke, and their children Paige, Colin, and Tristan. Please consider donating to her Memorial Sloan Kettering fund here. Lisa’s two mantras were “Find a bit of beauty in the world today. Share it. If you can’t find it, create it. Some days this may be hard to do. Persevere,” and “Make the most of this day. Whatever that means to you, whatever you can do, no matter how small it seems.”

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