12/05/2014 07:06 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

When the Death of a Facebook Friend Hits Home in Real Life


I checked my Facebook feed this morning to discover that my old friend, Anita, had died. As I scrolled through the posts on her Facebook page I went rapid-fire through the steps of grief, starting with, wait, wtf? Is this real? Unfortunately, there was no one I could call to confirm or commiserate, because this was a Facebook friend, one I had no association with in the real world. I scrolled down, reading the heartfelt condolences to family, and found a link someone had posted to her obituary. She had been suffering from a long illness, apparently, which she had never mentioned online. She had turned 80 just a week ago, but had always seemed ageless to me.

I consider myself a little old-fashioned when it comes to Facebook friends. I'm not exactly an early adopter, and while not an out-and-out Luddite, I'm wary of The Cloud and cat-fishing, and I do tend to sort friends into "real-" and "Facebook-friends" (and of course, a third category I call FFFFILFs: Facebook Friends of Facebook Friends I'd Like to... you know the rest). "Real friends" are the ones whose friendship either predated Facebook, or who became friends-proper in real life after "meeting" on social media (and like FFFFILFs usually the latter involves friends of friends who were in my real-world network to begin with). That's a lot of qualifying, I know, but these are calculations we all make on some level, and that seem important in establishing whatever hierarchy of friendship we feel is necessary to lend each of our relationships their proper weight relative to all the others.

We do this at least partly to show that we know what true friendship is, and that our invitation to friendship in real life, at least, has real meaning. After all, as even Aristotle knew, a friend to all is a friend to none. We tend to judge people the shallower the more Facebook friends they have (over a respectable minimum, of course). Some joke that the "healthy ratio" of Facebook friends to real ones is 100 to 1. Other social media apps dispense with the friends business altogether and go with the more fifteen-minutes-of-fame inflected "followers". Undeniably, when we talk about friendship these days, something about that "Facebook" qualifier says: I still know what a real friend is.

But then someone like Anita comes along. I had been writing a blog that focused on life in Boston when she started popping up in comments, with insights that were always polite but piquant, in that telltale southern style (Anita, it happened, was from Memphis and had settled in New Orleans). Comments turned into conversations that were always encouraging, revealing that rare soul that gets it, whatever it is. For me, it's a highly developed sense of empathy and the genuine and generous curiosity about everything in life that puts it to good use. Over the years, Anita showed me that in daily gestures of simple kindness that could easily fly under the radar. It might be a "like" or a share, or an encouraging word. It could be a short post about a moment of quiet in a twilit room or the riot of color in a blast of bougainvillea in the French Quarter in the spring. We would exchange "likes" as neighbors exchange niceties, and there was something about the sweet, simple humanity in this everyday gesture that set a world just slightly off-kilter to rights, if only for a moment.

Over the years I learned things about her, that she worked at Loyola, that she loved the perfect cup of coffee, snow (as a Northerner all my life I've been spoiled in this respect, but her enduring wonder was a delight) and the Boston Red Sox, which is probably how she found me all those years ago on the internet. She never mentioned her age or her illness, and never, to my knowledge, had a negative word for anyone. And yet, she was no pollyanna. As I read through remembrances on her Facebook page, still a little unbelieving, I could see that the Anita I had come to know over the years was the same one they knew. That the qualities of kindness coupled with a sharp wit and way with words were what her friends out there in the real world esteemed in her as well. Did I really need any qualifier for our decade of friendship? Hadn't we shared our thoughts and feelings, exchanged encouragements and kindnesses, as friends do? Sure, but did I really know her, or just Facebook know her? Does it somehow degrade the delicate hierarchy of friendship, or disrupt the friendship food-chain to count a Facebook friend among real-life friends?

Of course, we are accustomed to forming very strong attachments to people we have never met in the flesh but feel that we know. From celebrities like Robin Williams, whose death many felt as a personal loss, to authors who've written works we cherish, we don't question the enormous emotional impact people known to us only in the abstract have on us. And relationships over distance between people who never meet are certainly nothing new. "The marriage of true minds," in Edith Wharton's famous phrase, where two people "possess a sense of humor or irony pitched in exactly the same key". That's what Anita's friendship was to me. Admittedly, sometimes in-the-flesh encounters are important in establishing a deeper intimacy. But Anita's friendship, one of those "small good things" in my daily life, was very real despite the delivery system, and it makes me think maybe there's room for real friendship in the virtual realm, too. I know that right now, the loss of hers feels very real, indeed.