A Death on Facebook
Intimacy and loss in the age of social media
I met “S” several years ago, when she was hired by the magazine where I worked as an editor. She was an assistant in a different department, so we had very little day-to-day contact. I somehow learned that she went to nightclubs a lot, and I once overheard her tell a colleague that she wanted to be the editor in chief of a magazine someday. It was a snippet that stayed with me, as her partying lifestyle seemed contrary to such a career goal, and for a while whenever I passed her desk I would worry over the incongruity. Eventually I found resolution in the idea of Bonnie Fuller, doyenne of celebrity journalism. That’s what S meant, I decided: she would be an editor like Fuller, rather than someone bookish, like the legendarily reticent New Yorker editor William Shawn. She even had a haircut like Fuller’s.
Eventually S quit the magazine. There must have been a goodbye party, with the customary boutique cupcakes and plastic Champagne flutes. Months wore on, maybe even years. Much to our collective shock, one Wednesday morning our parent company announced it was shutting down the magazine, and by Friday we no longer had jobs. At first I was intoxicated by the novelty of solitude: it was late January, a nice time of year to spend the day reading on the sofa. But in the weeks to come, I started to miss popping into colleagues’ offices to get their daily romantic updates, or just making absentminded loops through the corridors, halfheartedly hunting for chocolates.
So it came to pass that I started logging on to Facebook. And, like seemingly everyone else I’d ever met, eventually S “friended” me. My policy has been always to accept whoever asks, no question, and never to friend anyone myself. (In this way I maintain the fiction that I’m not an active user.) I glanced at S’s picture—that pretty smile and Bonnie Fuller shag—clicked “confirm,” and unconsciously relegated her to the vast, benign category of “friends” with whom I never interact, but who constitute a comforting background chorus.
S would accept no such fate. Straightaway, photos of her nightlife dominated my news feed. Her status updates were bubbly shrieks of uppercase letters and exclamation points. I considered “hiding” her—this is the function that allows you to make a friend invisible without going so far as to “defriend” her—but that seemed excessive. S was, after all, my envoy to an alternate universe of abandon. Twenty-five years old and barelegged in winter was a variety of fun I’d never known before.
Then, in the spring, a man—G—entered the frame. At first he appeared with other men, the whole group at a table in a bar, offering pints of beer to the camera. But quickly everyone else fell away and he emerged in photographs with S alone, his arm thrown around her. At first the gesture was friendly and drunk, but over time I could track the way his arm both relaxed and tightened, his hand cupping her shoulder, and see him taking possession.
It turned out that G lived in London, and in the fall S posted images from a visit: the couple in a crowded pub, or on a bridge at sunset. By now I habitually clicked through S’s photo albums, a diversion far better than popping into a colleague’s office for a romantic update. Here, I had the satisfaction of a love plot unfolding right in my living room, complete with revolving backdrops and the suspense inherent in a long-distance relationship. When was her next trip? Oh look, G is coming to town! At this I felt relief: I took it as evidence that he was as committed to her as she was to him.
But that was nothing compared to my delight the December morning I logged on to Facebook and was greeted by a photo of S and G grinning madly on an enormous gray sofa, S presenting the back of her hand to the camera to show off the diamond on her finger. I have never known that kind of happiness with a man. Without thinking, I started to type a note of congratulations into the comment box, but midway through I erased it and logged off. I hardly knew this person. When had I become such a voyeur?
Still, I continued to devour her fairy tale. Here G was introducing her to his parents; here she was introducing him to hers. A year had passed since S had friended me. We never exchanged messages, or commented on one another’s postings, or saw each other in person (save for one early, awkward encounter in a furniture store, during which it took me a moment to place who she was). Yet I thought about her often, even when I wasn’t on Facebook, as I would any close friend in a similar joyful circumstance. More, in fact: her news thrummed inside my chest as if it were my own. I wondered where the wedding might take place, what she would wear. Being a voyeur isn’t so bad, I decided, as long as you’ve been invited—and you don’t tell anyone.
In late January, I traveled from my Brooklyn apartment to a remote Vermont farmhouse belonging to a friend of a friend. She was leaving the country for two weeks, and I’d agreed to take care of her animals. It was a brave little house with a big, tumbledown barn and fields that sloped into forests beyond. The days were bright with snow, the nights forbiddingly dark. I had to drive 20 miles to get Internet access. But one evening I made an exciting discovery: balanced just so on a windowsill, my iPhone had snatched a stray sliver of signal and garnered 50 e-mails. News from beyond! As the messages downloaded, excruciatingly slowly, I boiled water for tea, stoked the furnace, and settled into an armchair, pleased to see a message from a former colleague with S’s name in the subject line: had I actually been invited to the wedding shower?
It was a mass e-mail. “It’s my great displeasure to be the bearer of such horrible news, but S passed away on Sunday,” it read. “It was very sudden and I believe it happened in her sleep. I don’t have any other details; a friend of hers sent me a message via Facebook.”
A loud sob broke out of me, like a bark. It was a frightening sound in that too-quiet house. I stood up, heart racing, and paced the rooms, switching on any lamp I could find. But the rooms weren’t familiar to me, and their features—shelves sagging with books I’d never read; ropes of garlic garlanding a cupboard; decades of dirt caking the floor seams—only enlarged my sense of unreality. Even the smudged windows framed a night so black that I could see nothing there but my own pale face. How do you cry for someone you hardly know? And for what was I crying? S or her story?