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May 16. 2014 12:53AM

Fergus Cullen: Friendship, death and everlasting life on Facebook

RANDY ADDED a life event to his Facebook profile dated April 21: “Overcame heart attack.” The message came with a selfie of him in a hospital bed, wearing a hospital gown, not looking great, but alive.

I never met Randy in person, but at some point I’d accepted his friend request and when he got sick, Facebook’s algorithms brought his emergency to my attention by placing his posts at the top of my newsfeed. The next week of Randy’s life unfolded in public view, HIPPA privacy rules notwithstanding. Get well messages and prayers from friends, cheerful banter and test results from Randy, updates reporting that his surgery had gone well. In response to a friend, Randy pledged to change his diet and take advantage of his second chance.

Randy’s posts were overly optimistic. A week after his attack he died at age 49, leaving behind a wife and two school-aged children. The news came via a post from his widow. The Facebook stream changed to messages of condolences and friends tagging favorite photos. His wife put up a message thanking people for their support and listing details of the upcoming services. That’s how you find out about these things these days, part of how we grieve.

If people die, but are still friends with you on Facebook, are they really dead? You can still visit them any time and if your relationship was virtual to begin with, what’s changed, really?

I knew Ann better, though I hadn’t seen her in person in more than a decade. She was one of those friends from a past life and far away you’re glad to reconnect with through the social network. I didn’t know Ann already had a bad diagnosis when she posted a photo of lots of smashed crystal strewn across her kitchen after the shelf holding it collapsed. “Moral of the story: Always use the good stuff. Like we did last night,” she wrote.

A few weeks later she posted a quote from Steve Jobs: “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.” I still didn’t realize she was sick until a well-known person died and she commented that they had been chemo buddies. She changed her profile picture to a rainbow disappearing into the ocean. That’s still her profile photo.

Ann lasted long enough to attend her daughter’s wedding but died a few weeks later at age 57. Her daughter posted a photo of Ann feeding her a bottle as an infant. She is beautiful and vibrant. Facebook tips your friends off when it’s your birthday and three years after her death, many friends posted to wish Ann a happy one and say they miss her. Her children post messages to her page from time to time saying they are thinking of her and tell her about her grandchildren.

Bob was a former neighbor who dropped dead many years too soon. His widow still posts regularly to his page, marking events such as the anniversary of their first date. His children do the same. “You’d have been so proud of me today as I did something very important and did it well,” a daughter let him know. Another gave him updates on her wedding plans. “Hey dad, it’s your son. Wishing you a happy fathers day. Really missing you on this day.”

Two weeks after her 71st birthday, Yvonne took to Facebook to report that she had moved into a new room in the Hillsborough County nursing home. “This just might be my permanent living place. We shall see,” she wrote. It was her final post. Yvonne was active in Republican politics, and when her birthday rolled around this year there were well wishes from several politicians. It was not clear all of them realized Yvonne has been dead for three years. Yvonne let the faux pas pass without comment.

Late night comedian Jimmy Kimmel has promoted National Unfriend Day for several years, urging people to weed their friend list. It’s a suggestion made only half in jest. My friend list could use some pruning, but I’m going to hang on to my dead friends.

Fergus Cullen, a freelance columnist, can be reached at fergus@ferguscullen.com and followed @FergusCullen.


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