A couple weeks ago, NYT tech reporter Jenna Wortham did something really brave.
Writing about recently losing her father, she also lamented not having an appropriate space to turn to on the internet to share this particular news: “As someone who lives out most of her life online and revels in the Web, I can tell you it feels very weird not to have an outlet for one of the biggest events of my life to date… And not only does it feel weird: it gives the impression, at times mistaken, that all is well behind your screen.”
When I lost my dad it was 1996. I didn’t have to contend with the internet, didn’t try to pretend that all was well, but also couldn’t hide what had happened. The news traveled. My close friends and some high school peers offered their support and condolences, most awkwardly avoided eye contact.
The internet, I think, is a bit like my then adolescent friends—earnest, but (fairly, reasonably) ill-prepared to talk about death. While the loss of someone close is an experience we will all eventually share, many don’t experience it until a little later in life. Even then though, for most, it’s a pretty private matter. Why this is, I’m not sure—we fear pity, we think that feeling alone with this kind of loss makes us, and the person we lost, more special.
When I did talk about my dad and his passing somewhat publicly, it was over email, about two years ago. I was training for a marathon and raising money in his memory for a non-profit I thought he, too, would have wanted to support. The responses I got from people sharing their own experiences and losses were enormously kind, generous and open. These two-way conversations brought me closer to both people who were already friends and those who had been acquaintances.
The intimacy of email, it seems, made it a comfortable place to talk about cancer, about loss and death. While you can easily share news with a lot of people over a bcced list, any resulting dialog will only be between two people, or at most, a smaller, self-selected group. For the same reason, old-fashioned email lists, like The Listserve, feel like a small, well-lit room when there is glaring light everywhere else.
These spaces function differently than other (and newer) means we have to broadcast news—Twitter, Facebook, Instagram—enabling something not the same as but closer to the conversation you might have sitting next to someone in a car*. But the internet and its tools and platforms mostly follow our lead as we use them, and for now at least, culturally, we don’t deal well with death.
But this doesn’t mean that there won’t eventually exist the right places online for grieving or sharing unbearably bad news. The best condolence offered to me 16 years ago came from the mom of a good friend who had also lost her dad when she was young. She told me to write down everything that I wanted to remember, because, even though I couldn’t imagine ever forgetting any important detail about my dad, I would. And she was right. I mostly failed to take her advice, save a few short things jotted down in different notebooks over the years between now and then.
But thankfully, the internet is only going to get better for that, for writing—for remembering.
*A friend who is a mother told me that IM is like this for her and her daughter, too.