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Julie Flynn Badal Headshot

Social Media and the Promise of Eternal Life

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I learned the news one wet December morning.

My daughter had just gone down for a nap and it was time to have a cup of tea and troll my Facebook newsfeed in search of the spiritual aphorisms my Equinox yoga instructor posts after lifting them from people he follows on Twitter.

And there it was, posted between a Pinterest recipe and Youtube video by Florence and the Machine. Deb, a former colleague, had died of cancer. She was 40 years old.

I wasn't even aware that Deb had been sick. My mind returned to Deb's long unexplained absences at the private high school where we both taught Spanish. Had she been sick all along?

I remembered a comment I wrote beneath a photo Deb posted weeks earlier. The picture was taken in her native Barbados. She wore a halter dress and smiled coyly. It was clear she'd lost weight. She looked sleek and svelte with her hair cropped. I wrote, "You look gorgeous!"

I didn't realize I was peering at the light of a dying star. Once more, she didn't want me to know. We hadn't worked together in three years and hadn't seen each other in person in two. And yet, because of social media, I was privy to her death moments after it happened. It felt like a violation. Her body was still warm. The papers had not yet been signed. Who was I to be in such close proximity to her experience?

Deb and I were hired the same year to teach a language that didn't really belong to either one of us. We'd both learned to teach in the trenches of the urban public school systems. Now we taught together at a school that served as the set for Gossip Girl. Our students went to readings at the 92nd Street Y and started their own non-profit organizations. They took Spanish class for fun, after scoring 5s on the French AP or simply growing tired of the tonality in Mandarin. It was easy to be insecure and hard not to compete.

I left the school when I was eight months pregnant. I became friends with Deb on Facebook shortly after that. Our relationship on Facebook was less complicated. There was no longer a question of who spoke the better Spanish, who was the greater advocate for farm worker rights or who made the tastiest mole sauce. We could be happy for one another.

It used to be that only senior citizens bothered to read obituaries. Old age made death relevant. Friends of the elderly keel over left and right. It's important to keep up. Now social media has created its own brand of obituary, reminding us that death is not an exclusive club for the elderly. It provides a window to the death of people we hardly, if ever, knew. We can witness the disorienting moment of death's impact on the bereft, watching them fumble for words and grapple with the impossibility of it all on a public forum.

We learn of the sudden collapse of a high school classmate who now lives in another state. A heart attack, presumably. Others say it was a stroke. Old photos are posted of the guy sitting on a kitchen counter at a keg party. Everyone from your high school has something to say about him. You struggle to remember what his voice sounded like, if you ever truly spoke with him. Or there is the friend of a friend who was struck by a car while riding her bicycle. She was a mother of three. Lived six blocks away. No one can understand how this could happen to her. Fellow mothers are freaking out. It could have been them for God's sake; leaving behind their children to Lord Knows What.

The shared commentary around someone's death on social media feels like a disembodied wake. There are no tears or embraces that remind us that we're still alive. But then again, there is no spindly funeral home furniture, either. No percolated coffee. No creepy suited men waving you this way or that. Online, the griever can have their own terms even when the person that died cannot.

The news of Deb's death spread quickly. There were posts back and forth between mutual friends and long, threads of commentary. I learned the details. Who was there; who couldn't be. How everyone was gathering at Granny's house for sandwiches later that morning.

And Facebook made me feel as if I were a part of it all.

I searched my photo archives and posted a photo of Deb at my baby shower. In the photo Deb has her arm around my waist. She is crouching low, smiling beside my huge belly. I tagged the image and it appeared prominently on Deb's profile. The photo made it seem as if Deb and I were the best of friends. The distortion gave me pause.

Only God can promise eternal life. But the Internet might just guarantee that some distorted version of ourselves will be around at least until the planet melts.

If I were to be hit by a truck tomorrow, would former colleagues dig up photos of me at holiday parties and post them on my Facebook profile? Was I ready for my status update to become my last living statement? Would the articles I linked to on a whim come to represent me in a warped way?

My husband and I held hands in the back of the funeral parlor in Crown Heights where Deb's memorial service took place. I expected to see the entire faculty from the school there, but I spotted only a handful of teachers. Friends and loved ones crowded into the parlor. They shared poems and songs and old stories. I was moved to tears several times. Then Deb's ex-husband rose from his seat to share his memories and grief. I hadn't even known Deb had been married.

Deb was still a stranger to me. What was I doing there at her memorial service? I wouldn't have even known Deb had died without the Internet.

In the developed world, children born in the last five years are now quite literally born onto social media. Many are introduced to the world online days, if not hours, after their birth. And now it seems many of us are dying on social media too. With one billion users, Facebook makes the inevitability of death hard to avoid. Is a different way of grieving evolving out of this new reality?

I'm still friends with Deb on Facebook. Her profile was never taken down or converted into a memorial page. The date of her death is not specified on her timeline. When her image shows up on my side bar, one would think she just logged on. Her close friends and family continue to write on her wall as if her soul were located there. They write about how much they miss her or tell her when she shows up in their dreams.

I untagged the photo of Deb at my baby shower. Her profile had become a kind of tombstone and it felt unfair for the image to occupy such a prominent place. Deb didn't have a choice in the matter. I'm not really sure how she would feel about it. And I'm still not really sure how she felt about me.