In the space of five months I had to receive news about three friends' deaths via Facebook. For one friend, his father let us know by writing a shattering post. "I am devastated to inform Tim's friends that he has tragically passed away. I was the first person to ever hold him. He was my beautiful baby boy and I cannot believe I will never hold him again."
I had no idea Tim had been ill, but he had been sending several of his friends rambling messages, sharing poetry he had written when he was an exchange student in Japan in the early 1990s and posting photographs of the Fijian woman he fell in love with when he was nineteen -- an unrequited love that forever haunted him. It would not have been surprising if the last word to reach his lips had been "Melaia."
Then my friend Veronica was killed in a car accident. I'd seen on the TV news that a mother-of-four had died when her car skidded off the road and hit a tree but didn't know it was Veronica until her husband posted the tragic news on her page. It was an awful way to find out -- but I soon realized how great social media can be in times of death.
I joined the hundreds of people writing on his timeline, "RIP sweet Veronica, taken too soon. I'll never forget dancing to Abba with you on a stormy night on Sydney Harbour. Fernando forever." It felt like I was writing to her. It made me feel good.
Who was Anika?
But it was the third death that impacted me the most. My friend Anika tragically took her own life. We communicated via social media, we shared funny stories about our children and, because she was extremely bright, I regularly picked her brain when I was in need of an ear to listen to my more outlandish story ideas.
I knew a lot about her. I knew her husband died on the football field following a heart attack. I knew she loved her cats, Billy and Bobby. I knew she had two daughters with fire truck-red hair. I knew she dreamed of returning to Paris, the place her husband had proposed to her beneath the Eiffel Tower. I also knew that Anika suffered from depression. Once I sent a private message, asking if she was OK. I also asked her, "What is your depression like?" And she replied, "It's like waking up every morning and asking yourself, 'How the hell am I going to get through this day?'"
But when I heard that Anika had died -- when friends began posting RIP on her timeline -- I felt like I did not deserve to grieve with them. See, I had never ever met Anika in the flesh.
Me, the impostor
She was the friend of a friend of a friend of mine and we became Facebook friends thanks to a mutual love of typewriters. So while her real friends were posting updates reminiscing on their friendship with Anika; posting photographs of themselves with Anika basking in the sun in Italy, or at her 21st, or more recently at a mother's group lunch at the horse races, I could only offer a lame "RIP sweet lady."
But what I really wanted to write was that, although I hadn't met Anika, I felt like we were friends and I believe she felt like I was her friend -- even though we'd never looked each other in the eye, or given each other a hug or shared a bottle of wine. I wanted her real friends to know that I really cared about her too. But I felt like an impostor.
Her real friends were posting updates about the funeral and asking if anybody would be kind enough to adopt Anika's beloved cats. Then, some well-known local celebrities were posting on her page saying how heartbroken they were to learn of her death. See, I didn't really know her! I didn't know that pre-motherhood, she was a highly regarded publicist, everybody trusted her, she was a "somebody" who was widely adored within the entertainment industry. I'd only known the person she wanted to show on Facebook.
Thanks to social media I knew the day, time and location of Anika's funeral. I really wanted to attend, but something held me back. Let's call it embarrassment. What if somebody asked me, "How did you know Anika?" I would feel like a sham if I'd replied, "I'm just a Facebook friend. We never met." I was being a coward. Like many people when it comes to death, grieving and funerals, I made it all about me. So I decided to stay home.
It was a beautiful Sydney Tuesday, one of those days where the sky was a priceless, vivid blue and the clouds looked like living creatures. But I felt I didn't deserve to join the mourners who had known the real Anika. Instead, I went to my local church and said a prayer for her soul. Only now I have a new regret to add to the regret that I never met her -- I regret that I was too self-conscious to go to her funeral. Farewell Anika, I hope one day I will see you in the Land of the Angels.
LJ Charleston is a Sydney-based journalist and author of The Mommy Mafia: the urban dictionary of mothers, and Fatal Females. She has three sons; she will love them until the Sydney Opera House sails away.