Of course it's a cliché to say, but I'll say it anyhow: technology changes everything, even such fundamental things as how we define, make and keep friends as well as how we come together when we lose them. When we asked for and were reluctantly granted "friend" status, Facebook gave us an intimate look into a whole dimension of our 19-year-old daughter Emma. We saw a side of her that was quite different from the daughter, sister, granddaughter and niece that we knew up close and personal. Sometimes it made us smile, sometimes it made us cringe, but we tried to be respectful of her one condition in opening this window -- please don't judge me!
The Facebook window stayed open after she died, and we were surprised and comforted at the ways entries honored her life and her death and the poignant ways friends, teachers and even strangers articulated the impact of knowing her. In a funny way, the anonymity usually associated with technology was completely reversed during the grieving process. Face to face, people didn't seem to know what to say. On Facebook, friends, family, friends of friends, even people we had never known shared their deepest feelings of loss and pain with Emma, on her page, in the same way they had shared their happiness -- out loud, in writing, without a care who was reading over their shoulders.
I read over their shoulders and it was the only thing that brought me comfort during my darkest days. It seemed everyone missed my child. It seemed everyone was dumbstruck with grief. Friends changed their Facebook pictures to ones in which Emma was featured, smiling, happy, radiant. All kinds of memories were shared from starting kindergarten together to the most recent of Emma at a party two nights before she died. Songs and poems and links were shared and I gobbled them all up. When I slept, it was with my iPad in my arms so I'd be sure to hear the ding of a new lifeline.
Over time, of course, others have drifted away. I no longer sleep with my iPad in my arms because it no longer dings to signal the arrival of new wisps of my child. Still, I can count on friends checking in with Emma on her birthday, Halloween (her favorite) and the day she died. Once in a while, a friend of mine with whom I've lost touch reaches out because of Emma. My college roommate "friended" me, for example, because she somehow learned of Emma's death online. I responded and learned that her only child had committed suicide 13 years ago. We have become friends once again.
And Emma is still there, alive in her Facebook page. There are thousands of pictures of her doing all of the things that made her happiest. There are pictures with her family, with her cat, with her friends. There are pictures of her as a baby and pictures of her dressed for Halloween and pictures of her throughout her first year of college. There are even pictures of her first apartment, a place she didn't get to live, but the very idea of which brought her such joy. I visit her often and remain grateful that she was not only my daughter, she was my Facebook friend.
Donna Mebane is the author of the fact-based-fiction novel, Tomorrow Comes--a daring coming-of-age book in which an ordinary teenager must come to terms with her own mortality, the loss of all she once knew, and an other-worldly set of rules.