I've heard people say Facebook offers an artificial, almost creepy way to mourn for the dead, as profiles live long past their creators. But from where I sit, on this less greener grass, I'm not so sure. In 2002, before Facebook was even a twinkle in Mark Zuckerberg's eye, my mother died; I was 25 and I had never felt more utterly, direly alone. I tried to surround myself with people and drinks and routine, but being around those who knew me, those who were still able to have fun, only made my anxieties worse. I was paranoid my friends were judging me or pitying me for not acting like my normal self, and I would sit at bars or in coffee shops, trying to figure out if I was laughing at the right time or too hard or if my mouth was even moving at all. I checked my watch every few minutes, making deals for time to pass and the sun to go down, so I'd no longer have the whole day in front of me. I initiated tasks I normally avoided just to keep my body in motion — taking my grandfather for a haircut, dropping my brother off at the mall — but mostly I wandered around half-zombie, half-spaz, trying to escape my thoughts, which pinged from all corners of my brain down to my stomach and my toes.
If Facebook had been around when my mom died, would I have felt less isolated, scrolling through a constant outpouring of care? Would distant friends and family have been more apt to check in on me if they could do so behind a virtual wall, instead of the awkwardness of a phone call — which many were afraid to make and I was quick to avoid? Would any of this, at the very least, have helped me parse minutes? Or would my anxieties only have been heightened with every alert of a new condolence on my timeline? I don't know. I am still not sure how to navigate grief. It's a course that feels immeasurable.
And yet, 12 years ago, the closest means I had to advice or divine intervention that would get me through each day were brief talks with my most sensitive, nonjudgmental friends (all of whom still had both their parents), and cards purchased from your average drugstore. I remember sitting down on my bedroom floor after my mom's funeral and pouring out the bag of sympathies, tearing each envelope open, hoping for words of wisdom or a button that would release a flood of tears that would be the end to all tears. Many were your standard Hallmark assortment, reprinted tens of thousands of times, removed from the author's original sentiment, and what I imagined were bought on the way to the funeral and signed with an added "my condolences," or an "at least she's no longer suffering." I hated those words, so programmed and pat. If no one knew what to say, I'd preferred they'd say, "I have no idea what to say," because I didn't know either. I would have taken a deep, tight hug, a look that said, "Yeah, this sucks" — any sign of acknowledgment that what I was feeling was as indeed as horrifying as it seemed to me. I didn't care that my mom wasn't suffering anymore, or about what she was doing in the afterlife, because I was still living and I didn't know how to.
Logically, I understand that there is no way correct way to mourn, no guidebook or Facebook wall I can turn to that will correct the deepest loss I have so far known. But grief is illogical. It never feels resolved. I've done my share of what is termed self-work, and my anger and anxiety have long subsided; I've even almost grown used to living with the emptiness she left behind. But I still can't help but feel like mourning, in all its small and big ways — from my mom and I not getting to compare notes over books we both adore to her not meeting my husband, the first man she would actually approve of — is never done. I keep waiting to reach a marker where I feel some sort of resolution.
People have told me they'll feel their loved one's presence when they're visiting her grave or when they're wearing her favorite sweater or when they're least expecting it. None of those things have ever happened to me. I would love to have that connection; maybe it would be the antidote to grief. Instead, I wonder if I am flawed. Because I am a person who feels a lot, especially in the wake of my mom's death. When a character loses a parent in a movie or a commercial, my heart drops three notches. All I have to do is begin to think about my dad and how his health is failing, and I cry for a man who is still alive. But I can't help but think something is still blocking me from grieving for my mom wholly, from my gut. I want someone to tell me that it's OK if I don't.
Recently, I had a dream about my mom that startled me awake. I don't remember what it was about, but having given death and Facebook a lot of thought lately, I reached for my phone. I googled her. Maybe there was some record of her "living" out there that I had missed.
The first things that came up in a search were a bunch of people-finder sites, each displaying the various addresses where she once had resided (Ho'okea Street and Oka'a Street in Honolulu) and the place where she died (Temecula, California). The top search was something called Ancient Faces, and in the link's title, next to her name, was the definitive "(1944–2002)." A few links down was the obituary I had written for our hometown paper. At the bottom of the search page was the site Death-Records.com. My mother was best known for being a dead person.
Then I plugged in her maiden name and I got different results. She is 69; her current address is on Oka'a Street. She is. Current. For a moment, there seemed to be hope that I could track her down if I wanted to. Then, as quickly as that notion filled me up, it flittered away. My bones knew it wasn't true. I turned over onto my stomach and let the pillow catch the tears rolling down my face. She was here, where she always was, in the absences.
It's no surprise that when I finally had the chance to seek some answers and validation through our greatest record of public mourning, I stalked a few dead people. I'm nosy by nature, curious about the circumstances that bring people my age to meet their end, but I'm more interested in the aftermath, like how an old college acquaintance I haven't seen in 10 years mourns for her young husband, whom I never met. I needed to know: How do friends and loved ones rally around her? How does she respond to their intentions? Posted on her Facebook wall were generic sentiments meant to soothe her ("God will take care of him now") and make sense of a loss she would also burden for her children ("Just know he's in a better place"). In return, the widow would "like" a condolence, or post polite details of his memorial service, like a hostess of a cocktail party she didn't want hold. The more I read, the more frustrated I became. This was just like real life and my bag of greeting cards: People do what they think they're supposed to do. I just wasn't sure when we were taught to talk in clichés, instead of from our hearts.
I can only guess the inclination of condolence-givers is to not further upset those in mourning, or to avoid awakening their own sadness. But it's a strange instinct people have to want to remain calm for those who are deep in their sorrow. At least to me, that calmness often translated as coldness. In those first few anxious-zombie months, above all else, I needed to know that it was OK to fall apart, that other people had fallen too. When I go the dead husband's page, I find much more heartfelt remembrances than on the widow's: "Wishing you were still in a body.…It's very hard here without you." Or a photo with the two of them, buddied up, drinks in hand, captioned, "Missing you right now. Would love more Sunday afternoons like this." I'm glad his widow can see his page if she wants to, but I want to hijack his wall and write, "Friends, loved ones, grieve with his wife. You don't have to be strong for her. Show her that weakness is OK."
It is in this release — not in the trite, robotic messages — that Facebook pages of the dead seem like a gift that people like me didn't have: somewhere to feel less ashamed about not being able to move the fuck on. A preponderance of evidence that the person you loved was once alive and meant something to other people, not just you.
These were the kind of remembrances of my mom, about a side of her I'd forgotten about or didn't get a chance to see, that I ate up in the months after her passing — the ones that I would still like to find on her Facebook wall if she'd had one: an email from an older cousin describing a visit by my mom in the late '60s, "wearing a yellow sundress, talking about her life in Hawaii, hanging with Don Ho"; the eulogy her longtime friend and co-worker gave about the woman who was the life of the party, the one to dance on the tables at the party, the last one to leave the party; a former student who came up to me at the end of her funeral and said, "She was the kind of teacher you'll always remember because she was that good."
I was way less interested, actually totally unamused, when a former student of hers came up behind me outside of the church after her funeral and tucked in my shirt tag. "Your mom wouldn't have wanted you to be seen like that," she said, giggling to her friend. I just stared at her, unable to force a smile. I was in on this joke, but I didn't want to hear things about the mom I already knew — the nag, the outward perfectionist, or worse, the later-in-life invalid who was still putting up appearances, who, like me, couldn't admit she was dying. I wanted to be reminded that once upon a time, before cancer and chemo and lupus and surgeries, she had enjoyed life. I wanted to hear about the woman who, at some point, was her own person, not my mother. Perhaps Facebook could have given me those things, too.
Jessica Machado is an associate editor at Rolling Stone. Her work has appeared in Bust, Bitch, Guernica, The Hairpin, The Toast and The Frisky, among others.
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