She's Still Dying on Facebook

It’s been five years since my best friend from high school passed away, but her death happens over and over online.

I’ve been obsessed with Lea’s Facebook profile since January 2006, when she joined, just a month after I created my own account. In high school, we had a consuming friendship—together we did things we’d never do alone, like skinny-dip in Lake Michigan while rolling on Ecstasy. In summer, our sleepovers lasted weeks. At 1 a.m., we’d sneak out and trudge through the woods to a field, where we smoked cigarettes and got blackout drunk on wine stolen from our mothers. We talked a lot about getting wasted and breaking out of dead-end northern Michigan; anthems of small-town girls. We called ourselves unbreakable without a hint of irony. Our friendship took place entirely offline—which is strange, because for almost 10 years, most of my interaction with Lea has been with her Facebook profile.

A few months ago, motivated by the purchase of an iPhone 5, I refreshed all the apps on my phone. I barely use any of them—Chase, Twitter, Groupon, Facebook, iPeriod—and normally wouldn’t bother upgrading unless prompted by some breakdown of functionality. One of Facebook’s newer features is a change to private messages, so that they’re less like email and more like instant messaging. Now, if you visit someone’s profile and click on the messages button, a circular icon containing their profile picture appears on the screen, and with it, the entirety of your mutual correspondence.

On March 2, more than four years ago now, Lea died of substance-abuse-related liver failure. June 10 would have been her 27th birthday. This time of year is when she’s always most on my mind, and I’m sure that some Facebook technician who keeps track of what we all do on the site would report that my visits to Lea’s profile increase exponentially as the weather gets warmer. I don’t know how, exactly, I managed to open up my old messages with Lea. I want to say that Facebook put the messages there—that I didn’t click the button, that they just appeared, Lea’s face popping up because she had something to say, she wanted to chat. But I must have clicked. Maybe by accident. Still, I can’t ignore the pull of my bookworm’s interpretation, arguing that technology is the closest human beings come to magic. I know nothing about the way the Internet works. I still half-believe the Internet is simply air. So why isn’t it plausible that Lea’s messages appeared in response to how much I miss her, to my own guilt about her death.

* * *

Lea was the kind of person you join Facebook to stalk. At 16, I was in love with her in a not-entirely platonic way, which every woman who has been the sidekick in a teenage girl-duo will completely understand. And, like a true sidekick, I didn’t question our bad choices—I followed Lea whole hog, in the spirit of best-friendship, of adventure. But part of me anticipated the person who writes this now, by which I mean that even as we chased a night of cocaine with Xanax and Lifetime movies, I already knew that this was the stuff of my wayward youth, and that I’d outgrow it. We promised to be friends forever, but then I went away to college in New York City and she moved to Costa Rica with her boyfriend of the moment. After that, I watched her downward spiral from afar—or more precisely, from close-up, only separated by a computer screen.

My freshman year, Lea’s status updates were consistently funny and weird and her. A year later they’d become disjointed: Hallmark quotes that the Lea I’d known would have made fun of, misspellings, late-night fragments that had clearly been posted after a hundred drinks and who knows what else. Her profile pictures changed too. Early-on, she was Lea at the beach, grinning through a sunburn. Later, she was Lea 30 pounds thinner than I’d ever seen her, her cheeks squirrel-swollen, staring at something beyond the camera. When I went home to Michigan on winter break, I’d bump into her at bars and parties, or get incomprehensible calls from her in the middle of the night. We’d grown apart swiftly and irrevocably. I might drink too much with my high school friends over the holidays, but in New York I was living the kind of life Lea and I had imagined for ourselves, if only we could escape Michigan. At 19, I didn’t understand what her life had become, and why she hadn’t grown up with the rest of us, why she couldn’t get it together.

By that point, she’d become a fixture in home-for-the-holidays gossip. From Facebook, I knew she was dating someone who, in high school, we’d made fun of for being a scary burnout. More than once she had a black eye. She’d had a seizure at Walmart. Everyone from my graduating class loved to talk about how messed up Lea had gotten—but when we saw her, we used her drugs and stayed awake with her until dawn, reminiscing about the good times, before most of us went back to school and left her behind.

I think I recognized the hypocrisy of our behavior then, and maybe even drunkenly mentioned it. But after Lea died I told myself I’d tried to help. That I’d done what I could. I’d reached out and she’d ignored me. She stopped responding to my texts, my emails, my phone calls. At her funeral, I felt guilty that I hadn’t done more but also angry at her for leaving us, for leaving me, someone who loved her, someone who—still—would never let her go.

But Facebook tells a different story.

The last message between me and Lea was sent on February 21, 2007, and it’s from her to me. But it’s a message I hadn’t ever seen until I updated my Facebook app a few months ago—seven years after Lea sent it, four years after she died. Right after Lea’s funeral, I spent one terrible afternoon going through a shoebox full of old notes we’d passed in class and crappy photos we’d taken with drugstore disposable cameras; I didn’t think about what Lea might have left for me online. When I saw the message years later I stopped breathing. For one disorienting, searing second it was like she’d died again in that instant. I experienced an almost physical sensation, as if I’d clumsily dropped something fragile onto the floor and watched it shatter. The worst part: It wasn’t the only unanswered message from Lea to me—there’d been more, along with many that I’d answered with pretentious, dashed-off notes about life in New York, glib acknowledgments of her stint in rehab, of the fact that her dad had moved out, of her depression.

Lea died the first time soon after she joined Facebook, when I witnessed her transformation into someone she would have mocked and pitied. She died again, a smaller death, a year or so before her real-world one, when she basically stopped posting altogether. On March 2, she died publicly, her wall turning into the memorial it is now. To me, she’s died again and again since then. The posts remembering her are fewer and fewer, months apart sometimes. When I rediscovered our messages, she died again—in a different way, because I’d come face to face with how I failed her. Facebook has made her death a sort of high-concept horror movie. How many more times will I grieve her? How many more details from my past, from Lea’s past, are buried online, waiting for me to uncover them?

When I lost her for real, for good, it came to me through technology. I was at the cardiologist asking neurotic questions about a heart condition I’d recently been diagnosed with—I would give my college commencement speech in a few months, and I wanted to make sure my heart wouldn’t betray me while I was onstage. My phone vibrated as the doctor talked about magnesium. I glanced at my lap, lifting the flap of my purse, and checked my text messages with superhuman subtlety—a skill I’d learned in school.

I opened a message from an unknown number.

“Lea died,” it said.

I stayed until the appointment was over, nodding when it seemed appropriate to nod and methodically moving down my list of questions. I didn’t burst into tears. I didn’t run sobbing from the room. But with that text, my world split in two. In the first world, the real world, a doctor was talking, I was a busy New Yorker paying a crapload for an appointment I’d missed work to attend, and there was no place for what had just been communicated to me, quite literally by a tangle of wires and signals whose mechanisms I couldn’t fathom but that somehow extended all the way into my deepest past, all the way to the second world, where the things I loved most were stored. When my appointment was over, I think I said, “thank you.” I don’t remember leaving. The next thing I remember is wandering through midtown, crying so hard I couldn’t see, as Mari, the friend behind the text, explained that Lea was dead, that the funeral was days away, that I needed to come home.

I know my obsession with Lea is partly selfish. Her story is like a hologram. Tilt it, let the light hit it from a different angle, and the dead girl we’re talking about is me. We’d both gotten cited by police at 14 for drinking beer on the beach. At the height of our friendship I matched her drink for drink, inhale for inhale. If I'd had a little less luck, or she'd had a little more—how would this story go? In my memory, yes, I’m the sidekick, yes, she was the one always egging us to take one more step into the shadows, where we could really get hurt. But wasn’t I holding her hand, encouraging her with my willingness to follow? One night, while we laid outside in the field, a little tipsy, she grabbed my arm and made me promise her I’d never let her turn out like a druggie girl who lived in the rundown apartment complex behind my house. I promise, I told her. I promise.

Over the years, I’ve occasionally searched for that druggie girl on Facebook. Today she appears to have two daughters and a job and a partner and lots of friends; she just attended her 10-year high school reunion.

The Internet has complicated the question of where to store my loss. How can I move on, if Lea’s face is always lurking in my phone, asking me, begging me to get to the bottom of how my gorgeous, ballsy friend died of liver failure at 22 years old? With every Facebook upgrade it seems like the platform makes it easier for me to become an archeologist of Lea’s past. I’m dogged by our messages, sure, but now I can also investigate her profile using the timeline function in the upper righthand corner of the screen, so that if I want to visit healthy—or healthier—Lea, circa-2006, I can leap to that portion of her wall in an instant. And every time I do, I’m reminded of promises I didn’t keep.  

In some ways, it’s worse that Facebook is almost all I have of her. I can’t reconcile my memories with the fragments she left online, but those fragments are the only thing, concretely, that remains. I never joined the flood of people remembering her on her wall. I didn’t scan and upload any pictures of the two of us. You won’t find me, or any traces of our friendship, except in a few group photos taken before high-school dances. In the months after her death, I was comforted by her profile, and by the people sharing stories there—I refrained from posting not because I thought the forum was cheap, but because I didn’t know what to say. My grief felt private, personal, like something only Lea would understand. A few times in the last couple of years I’ve come close to posting. The impulse is always followed by anger—anger at Lea’s Facebook for posing as her living self, for tricking me, momentarily, into believing that if I post I will somehow reach her.

In July 2009, Lea changed her Facebook profile picture for the last time. It's a selfie, though she wouldn’t have known to call it that, taken with a flip-phone in a room with smokey lighting. She’s not smiling. She is beautiful. Her nose is pierced; she’d done it after all. Her piece-y blonde bangs look arranged—a good sign, I remember thinking when the photo first showed up in my newsfeed, a sign she still cares about something—her skin Michigan-summer tan. A star of light is trapped in each of her blue eyes, a reflection from the camera-flash. Her expression is distant and sad. With the hand that doesn’t hold the camera she gives a little wave, only three of her fingers visible inside the frame. For as long as Facebook exists, Lea will be there, saying goodbye. And as long as she’s there, I’ll be watching her go.

 
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Julie Buntin is a writer based in New York.

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