I discovered, yesterday, that a friend from my college years passed away unexpectedly. I learned through that stuttering flutter that is Facebook updates. A few cryptic posts of loss and praise. And then a chorus of strangers clamber for more information, joining in some confused and networked online howl. This is our digital sorrow.
For more information, I reached out to our mutual friend by phone. Instead, I was the one to tell her, which made me wince. I hate being the messenger. I dwell and write on mortality as it is. Sharing the news of actual death is for more appropriate people, pastoral people. But here I am telling you of the death of my friend, anyway.
The last time I saw her was in early 2000, when I drove up to visit her smack in the middle of nowhere Vermont. She was working as a counselor in a camp for teen sex offenders as they struggled to reintegrate back into the world. She had that kind of heart. I remember we crossed upon the snow of a frozen lake, just the two of us. The air was bright and cold and muffled. It was the first time I wore snowshoes. It was a wonderful day. She was happy and alive in that way that camp staff live and find their being. She died peacefully. In her sleep, I was told. I was told online.
The group of friends we shared, we quickly created a Facebook chat group, adding more and more of us. By invitation, we shared the news. We invited people to share our grief. You’ve been invited to mourn with us about this tragedy you’re learning about as we are writing about it. Death can surprise like that. Sorry about that. There was no other way to tell you so quickly.
Our group was one of those student religious organizations at a big state university, the kind of school where you can disappear and reinvent yourself, if you want. Or get lost, if you want. Our Episcopal student group, Canterbury, was more than a foxhole for finals. And it became the first real community I experienced. It was where I felt I could finally be sad about God and the world and everything else. And she was part of that. She was my friend. She was my friend when I had some really bad moments. She had that kind of heart.
And then her heart stopped.