Google The Unplanned Homeschooler: Everyone Matters: Mourning the loss of an online friend

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Everyone Matters: Mourning the loss of an online friend

Last week, I found out I'd lost a dear friend who I never had the chance to meet in person. Melissa Matters had started writing a few years ago on the now defunct Yahoo! Contributor Network the same time I did, and we both became friends with the same bunch of writers, eventually engaging in a supportive community on Facebook where we read each other's work every week and encouraged one another.

When Yahoo! decided to shut down this branch of their business, dozens of active writers held onto the ties we'd made and encouraged each other as we built blogs, like the one you are reading and like Melissa's blog, "Wading through Motherhood."Each of us followed our individual interests, and though our blogs were diverse, we continued to stay in touch, reading the work produced by the friends we'd made in our months or years writing together.

Then, one morning, messages on Facebook, tagged with Melissa's name, gave the indication something was terribly wrong. Looking a little deeper, it was clear. My friend had died, suddenly and unexpectedly, leaving behind her husband, her two small children, her parents, and many, many other family and friends who loved her dearly.

I didn't know any of them. I'd read about Melissa's family in her own words, and I knew how much she adored her husband and her children. She loved being a mother more than anything. But even though I had shared many chats and messages with her, I'd never written a word to her husband or anyone else she knew in person. I had to reach out to a stranger, a friend of hers who had posted a sorrowful goodbye and seemed to have known her for many years, to even find out how she died.

And I cried. And the other writers who knew Melissa cried. We mourned, and we felt helpless and sad, whether we lived nearby or half a world away. We'd known her, we'd loved her for her sweet and generous heart, and now we'd lost her.

Dealing with another strange loss

This wasn't the first time I'd dealt with losing a friend from online. A few years ago, several dozen people, including my brother and me, were part of a large team in an online game. One day we logged on to find a message from a teammate's account, letting us know that our buddy had died the night before. It was signed by his son.

Our little community of gamers, some of whom had been playing together and chatting almost daily for a couple of years or more, was devastated. We didn't even know our buddy's real name, as we all went by handles, but that didn't make the loss any less real to us.

Except, as it turned out, it wasn't real at all. The "son" who'd been so caring as to let us know what happened to his dad was just the same gamer, playing a cruel hoax and twisting the emotions of people who genuinely cared. Discovering the hoax tore us up, and we felt terribly hurt and betrayed.

This time, I just wished it was all unreal, but I knew it wasn't. Melissa was really gone.

When it happens to you or your kids

As our world gets smaller and smaller, and we become more and more connected to people from around the globe, chances are all of us will lose someone we've grown to care about but never met in person. My daughter has a penpal she met in a Minecraft class for homeschoolers who she really likes, but who she may never sit across from in real life. I have many friends I've known for nearly a decade, but have never seen. 

Life marches forward, and with it, inevitably, comes death. You will mourn the loss of online friends, or they will mourn you. How do we handle it?

It's not easy. Mourning from afar is confusing, and saying goodbye without ever having properly said hello feels wrong. But it's important to acknowledge the friendship and acknowledge the loss. Let yourself feel the emotions you feel, and cry if you need to let it out. Let your family and friends nearby know you are grieving the loss of someone you cared for, and talk about them if you can.

Reach out to your friend's family, even if you know they won't know who you are. It doesn't matter. Your kind words will be uplifting to them, and they'll be comforted to know that the one they loved touched hearts far away. 

Melissa's mother replied to many of her fellow writers who shared our love on her Facebook page. She was grateful to hear of the impact her daughter made. I think, if my online friends reached out to my family, they'd be glad to know I mattered, too.

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