Many types of bereavement go unrecognised, but few will cause people to look at you as if you’ve just arrived from the nearest planet with an extra-terrestrial population. That is a particular problem for people who have experienced the loss of somebody they only knew online. There is a definite tendency to think that the nature of online relationships makes them somehow less worthy of recognition and mourning when people we have known through those means pass away.
People claim that you don’t really know someone you have met online, but those who have experienced online loss would say different.
Whether those we come to know represent the online personalities of our friends or the people that others see, the closeness of online friendships should be recognised.
I speak from a position of experience, having suffered my first such loss almost five years ago. I came to know a woman in Argentina through a George Harrison forum, and we corresponded regularly for a while through the forum, before engaging in email contact and instant messaging conversations.
Helping Chris get back into playing guitar the year before she passed away remains one of my greatest achievements, in my opinion. She endured a battle with cancer throughout the time I knew her, something we rarely discussed. However, I always knew when things were not all they might be, as other members of the board community endeavoured to keep me informed during the times when Chris herself could not.
Chris’ death in April 2007 coincided with Easter Sunday, an association which has proved difficult to overcome prior to this point. I was deeply saddened by it, and the nature of my friendship with Chris seemed to complicate the mourning process, as I felt that I was not entitled to grieve in the same way as her family or close friends.
As people bereft of online friends, it can be difficult to permit ourselves a ‘normal’ grieving process, due to society’s perception of immediate loss being more affecting. Email exchanges and instant messaging conversations may be the only traces that remain of these connections; therefore they take on an almost sacred significance.
Grieving a cyberloss brings its own difficulties, the first of which is the public perception that you are somehow abnormal for getting to know somebody well enough online that you grieve their loss as you would a close family member or friend.
In my view, there is no distinction between online friendships and close friendships. Online friendships can be just as fulfilling as close personal friendships, and just as painful to lose. It can be very frustrating as a victim of cyberloss not to have somewhere to go to remember the person you are mourning, or somewhere to go to celebrate their life.
Memorial rituals can be as simple or elaborate as you like when commemorating an online friend, perhaps putting their picture up somewhere you can see it, with a few other special mementos of your friendship, or planting something in their memory. I have a Japanese maple which I bought a few days after Chris died, it has struggled to flourish, but it keeps on trying, which reminds me that I must strive to rise above the feelings which have stayed with me since her death. I have mentioned what I believe to be my most important lesson to Chris, but I have not yet revealed her most important lesson to me, borrowed from George Harrison, of course. “I won’t accept defeat”, George sang on the final track of his posthumous album Brainwashed. This became one of Chris’ mantras, and by extension has since become one of mine.
It is important when grieving a cyberloss that the happy memories of the person you knew can come to coexist alongside the memories that you may not want to keep. There were many moments during Chris’ final illness that I would rather erase from my memory completely, but as that is not yet an option, I do my utmost to focus on the lesson she taught me and the inspirational way in which she lived her life. If I’ve learned anything over the past five years, it’s this: Chris might no longer be here, but the memories are everything. It’s for this reason that I have reclaimed my right to grieve and honour her by remembering.
Cyberlosses are no less important than the losses which take place in the ‘real’ world; they can be grieved with as much attention as you would pay a significant loss within your close circle. Indeed, they should be recognised in the same way. There is a clearer place for personal ritual in grieving a cyberloss, as there are no rigorous societal conventions which dictate that the proceedings must be carried out in a specific way, at a specific time, for a specific duration.
Ultimately, when grieving a cyberloss, your way through is up to you. Just make sure you don’t let anybody else take away your right to grieve, the relationship you had with that person was particularly special and they made a mark on your life. Their loss should be recognised, and their life should be celebrated. Embrace your right to grieve as a person who has known true friendship, even through online means.