A few years ago, a close friend of mine unexpectedly lost her husband. He was just 40, the death was shocking, and he was young and connected enough that Facebook had to play a major role. But we were all still just discovering the kinks in our growing social media system that we, surprisingly, hadn’t thought through. His was the first close friend’s death I ever saw announced on Facebook, and this was striking. One had the feeling of, “Wait, is this what we do now?” (I had heard about his death before this official announcement, but in another very modern way: via a text message, the image of which is burned in my brain.) Funeral details among our friends passed along mainly through social media. I got messages from mutual high school friends I hadn’t heard from in years. We slowly realized: Yes, this is what we do now.
And to me, the biggest surprise was how oddly comforting I found this way of grieving. It allowed us to put thought into what we said publicly about him. I think it allowed my friend, his wife, to remind herself how many people cared in a very visceral, clear way: via sensitive comments and messages of support from everyone who was touched by her loss, even if they couldn’t make it to the funeral or didn’t feel it was their place to come.
I remembered all of this upon reading this recent piece on AtlanticWire about how Roger Ebert has lived on, so vividly, online since his April death. I’ve always idolized Ebert: I grew up in Chicago and wanted to write about pop culture for as long as I can remember. He is among the first and best of those who proved you could write smart, and well, about pop culture. Like so many, I fell even more in love with him when he used his writing talents to continue communicating — to communicate his depths as a human being — when he was stricken with an insidious form of jaw cancer that left his face disfigured and his speaking voice silenced. Just as he’d shown us decades ago that movie writing could say something real, he in more recent years showed us that the Internet could be a repository for deep, revelatory writing.
He didn’t want to give that up just because he died, so he left his wife, Chaz, detailed instructions about how to maintain his fantastic website, RogerEbert.com, which is now edited by the talented Matt Zoller Seitz; and even how to continue Tweeting under his Twitter handle.
A few years ago, I would’ve still found this all a bit ghoulish. But knowing the comfort I took from the Internet when my friend’s husband died, and the comfort I still take from RogerEbert.com, I see the good that online communities can do, during both life and death.