My sister in law, Rebecca, died almost three months ago. You wouldn’t think that would be the closest of relationships, but we came to know each other later in life.
My delightful wife, Susan, and I were married when we were 50 and Rebecca was married to Susan’s brother, Jeff.
About three months ago, Rebecca and Jeff were driving home from celebrating their wedding anniversary. She was posting pics on Twitter of their celebratory dinner. Jeff was driving, and Rebecca was in the passenger seat.
She hit send, looked over at Jeff, and died right there in the front seat of the car.
Rebecca was a two-time cancer survivor, and she had been through the wringer of life.
That’s the real world. Eventually, we all die. Not to be morose, it’s just a truth. I am all for making the best of life while we are living it.
The strange thing is that today, Facebook told me it was her birthday.
Now, it isn’t like I didn’t know that this day is coming, or that I couldn’t feel the emotional energy, I could. It’s that, Rebecca’s gone, and Facebook can’t bring her back.
The day is already strange enough without being reminded by Facebook that my sister-in-law is dead, or that my brother-in-law has been in mourning since that day.
But here’s the thing.
The world goes on. It goes on with or without Rebecca. People post pictures of their cats, their dinners, and their kids’ graduations. They like and share posts about their nephews’ bar mitzvahs, birthdays, and graduations.
They do all this without Rebecca in the world.
It’s a strange thing. You meet somebody, get to know them, eat holiday dinners together, go to the beach, hang out in Irish pubs, and just shoot the shit. It’s life in a completely normal way.
Then one day you wake up, and your brother-in-law’s friend has left you a message on your phone.
You call, and the first thing you hear is that Rebecca is dead.
Not ghosted on Facebook, Insta or whatever social app is currently in fashion, but gone. You realize you will never get another invitation to Thanksgiving Dinner again.
You’ll never open another Christmas gift of clothes that almost fit, and you’ll never see posts from Bruce Springsteen concerts or opening day at Saratoga again.
Living but not living
The electronic world has made some changes to the real world. But there is still no digital way to deal with death. We see people disappear all the time from the online world and don’t think about them as being dead.
But sometimes, they are.
It’s a weird thing, the idea that so many people live much of their lives online. And that when they pass, there is no traditional way to let their online family know this happened.
Life and death are the real world. That’s where we live; where our phones are connected, where our laptops and desktops keep us in contact with the digital world.
Maybe we need a better way to let each other know when one of our family has passed on.
I wasn’t shocked that I got a Facebook notification that it was Rebecca’s birthday. I knew the day was coming. What I was surprised at, was how strong my reaction was.
Susan and I have been dealing with our grief over Rebecca’s death for these past few months, but today, it was like opening the floodgates of sadness all over again.
Tears, memorial toasts, prayers, and lots of shared stories. It’s hard to do that online. There is no blame of the internet or social media here; I made a post with a picture I took of Rebecca showing off her holiday table and looking like Martha Stewart.
It just feels weird.
The digital world works for its intended purpose
We have words and photos and videos, but there is nothing like being in a person’s presence. Talking with them, putting your hand on their arm to make a gentle point, sitting back and eating dinner or relaxing with a glass of wine; those are the moments lives are made from.
Words aren’t the same
Words work for what they are designed to do, but they don’t cover all the bases. Our other senses help us live a full life.
In Rebecca’s home, food was important. I like to eat, so that suited me just fine. She was an excellent cook, a wonderful host, and a delight to be around, especially during the holidays.
We all have lives, real lives where we connect with other living, breathing people. We touch them, hug them, kiss them, sit next to them on the couch and share laughs.
The online world simulates those interactions but doesn’t match up in authenticity.
I’m glad I had the opportunity to meet Rebecca. She was a shining star. She was unique. I liked that.
I do think we need a way to integrate the online world with the real-life world. I’m not sure what that is. Maybe its nothing more complicated than me posting a Happy Birthday message on her Facebook wall and her friends and family getting a chance to wish her peace in heaven.
If that’s what it is, I’m all for that.