Grief Capacity

Mourning in the New Century

My father died when I was eight, and the grief was acute. When introduced to children of eight some thirty years later, I still startle. Their tenderness and lack of guile belies the elaborate thoughts and emotions I experienced at that age.

Over three decades later, the memory of my grief traces a silhouette around the space my father once filled. I have a few memories of him; his face at rest, his hands drumming the steering wheel. I don’t remember his clothes, his favorite foods, the sound of his laughter. I no longer remember how he smelled.

Leaving a Mark

Time heals, they say. That has held true for me. But there are few photographs of my father, and no video. The absence of these artifacts has made it possible for my grief to mellow. There is sadness when I no longer remember his laughter, but no recordings to prod me into distress. Poignance replaces despair, continuity edges out cataclysm.

But in recent decades, the way we communicate and exist in relation to our loved ones has shifted. Individuals often write more, record more. Texts, email, video, personal sites, interactions on social media, all of it adds flesh to our memories of each other. Our expressions persist in the absence of our animation.

In my adult life, I’ve lost a few friends who led active lives on the Web. And reviewing their lives online has kept me in mourning longer than I might have been otherwise. In the instance of acquaintances, it’s eerily possible to get to know them better after they’ve died.

And then there are the people who are still alive now, but whom I will only ever know through screens as we age together.

Larger Tribes

A few years ago, I followed a popular songwriter who was was among the first celebrities to use Twitter. I was more interested in the novelty than in him, but he eventually won me over with his writing. He’s clever and relatable, and few months in I heard one of his songs on the radio. I thought, “Oh! J’s song is on.” As though he were a friend.

At the time, that affinity startled me, though my surprise now feels naive. Having never been much of a celebrity worshiper, I was shocked to realize that I counted this stranger among my tribe. That I felt pride in his accomplishments, concern over his obstacles, and that eventually I would be upset when this man died. The thought unsettled me enough that I removed him from my daily reads, and started considering my connections more carefully.

The Web as Memento Mori

With technology, our tribe can expand in proportion to our attention and free time. As can our ability to review information about friends we’ve lost — examining their written motivations, hearing their laughter on video, seeing their nuanced expressions play over countless images.

And as Facebook pushes posts with heavy interaction to the top of my feed, most weeks I’m greeted with death, illness, and birth topping the page. There’s a new intensity in facing so much mortality each day, and knowing so quickly about the deaths of people I may have met a handful of times — people I might not otherwise have known were gone.

Soon enough, old age will settle over the first generation of Web natives. When swaths of us begin to die, will our connection to a much larger tribe, and the loop of their digital presence, push some of us past our capacity for grief?

I’ve caught my breath too many times when learning of someone’s death in a 140-character tribute. And though I’ve yet to reach my forties, I’m already nostalgic for a time when the only “alert” that could set my heart racing was a phone ringing in the dark.