R died a few months back. He was an enigmatic bloke. Once, decades ago, in a darkened university lecture hall, there was a moment. Not that his wife wants to hear about my failed romances. I was young, naive. More seasoned than me in that regard, he was on his way to becoming a rock star. He said ‘I’m a star’ so often, it became his mantra. Days were spent at La Trobe uni’s Agora, his entourage of male friends and me – them talking music and science, me missing psychology classes. How I passed third year, I’m yet to understand. What I take away from those years is an image of R climbing a tennis court railing on my twenty-first, his mate jumping fully clothed into a pool after me.

It was R’s birthday a few days ago. Prior to this, and upon his death, I had been wondering what would happen to his Facebook page. I didn’t fret as an intimate might; I simply moved my right shoulder blade back as if away from an itch. It irked me that I was being reminded that I would now never have the chance, something I had once taken for granted, of one day bumping into R on the street and sharing threads of our lives over coffee.

We had gone for many years without catching up, as many friends who have lost contact do. Then about twelve years ago, I was walking in South Melbourne during a work lunchbreak and there he was. I looked much younger than he did, he said. He had young kids. I was yet to have a family. We became Facebook friends mid 2011. It was simply a request and an acceptance – no LOLs or drawn out sentences. Just a click and an acknowledgement of a friendship past.

Which is probably why I wasn’t comfortable going to the benefit gig held to help him and his family pay for some of the huge expenses associated with terminal illness. It was weird that this healthy looking bloke was dying. A part of me couldn’t, or perhaps wouldn’t, believe it. Not R. Not the killer guitarist who cracked the charts and should continue to have, with his beautiful wife, teenage daughters and a bevy of friends, the world at his feet.

I saw mention of his birthday on the sidebar of my Facebook page, alongside his profile pic. ‘Why will no-one shut down that page?’ I thought. It was like a stain reminding me of what a bad friend I had been in not going to that benefit. Not to wade through the awkward feeling of having to float in the crowd, as if I was a groupie waiting for him to flag me down to say hello. The awkwardness of searching out other mates who surely would have been partnered up while I was alone, going through a rough time with my partner, one minute wanting him to come, the next minute not wanting him breathing over my shoulder.

‘What’s the use of that page?’ I hammered, every time it caught me unawares. ‘One more reminder for those who really loved him that he’s not here?’

Perhaps my thinking says more about my attitude to losing someone than about retaining a reminder of a life. When my father died, I was aged 20, and one of the first things I said to my mum was: ‘are we going to sell the house?’

Her reaction was the opposite. For her the house my dad designed was a monument to the man she had chosen to live her life with, to the children they raised and to the garden that they tended to together every Sunday.

When I tentatively clicked on the link to R’s page on the day that celebrated his birth, I learned what can be made of a page that lives beyond the life of its owner. Perhaps I had been afraid it would be empty. Or even worse, there might be just a solitary comment. Instead, words of brotherhood, adoration and friendship adorned his page like lasting wreaths.

I did not add to the comments; but they spurred this post. Today, because of Facebook, I raise a glass to an old mate. I thank the year 2012 for a chance to discover what might have remained hidden if social media didn’t exist. This might sound very simple to those who have a greater grasp of theories and practices relating to the digital sphere than I do. More could also be said about Facebook pages that are erected to engage the community in solving crime, or as memory spaces, ord as signposts to physical gatherings like the 30,000 strong march for Jill Meagher on September 30.

More could also be said of the deeper connections that are formed through phone calls, emails and texts – perhaps these form a line to the otherwise unfathomable lives of lost friends?

But to not have to go a day more wondering what happened to an old mate, to know that R died and how he died, and that that is not a mystery, well in this, as much as there is pain, there is relief.

Diane Simonelli

Diane Simonelli has worked in marketing, publishing, PR and on websites in Melbourne and London. Her short stories have won awards including the Boroondarah Literary Prize and her second novel received an Australian Arts Council grant. A mother of two young boys, she delights in new forms of media and treasures classic print.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. ‘Why will no-one shut down that page?’

    It’s not that simple. When somebody dies you can’t just close the page unless you know the person’s authenticating details. Nobody can “inherit” it either. What Facebook does now if notified is turn it into a memorial page, accessible to the person’s pre-existing friends.

    (There are also services that allow you to nominate trustees for your social media accounts in the event of your death, for instance http://www.ifidie.net)

  2. I had a similar experience to you Diane. In my case, I lived with this guy at a residential college. I didn’t now him that well, but I knew of him, I knew what he looked like, we said hi. Then one day I found out he had died through Facebook. It was bizarre I lived with the guy and I found out through Facebook. A couple of years later I went back to his page, I wanted to write about what happened, explore the mixed thoughts I had about it. The amount I learnt his personality, what he liked and who he talked to from reading his page was amazing. I felt I knew him more. What I also noticed was how much wasn’t said. We portray this public face on social media but how much does that really tell about you in real life? It was something I explored in my e-book “Jake’s Page”. Every year on the anniversary of this death and on his birthday people post on his wall, about how much they miss him, about how they are having a drink for him (even though it was drinking that ended up killing him). So I am in mixed minds, I learnt so much about him and his friends that I never knew, but it can’t be easy being reminded of a friend years after his death.

    1. It is bizarre, Emily. Reading about death. Mortality is the big punch in the face: we are dealing with the finality of another’s absence and a reminder that time will not spare us. When someone dies, I feel like I should be told on the phone or face-to-face. If I’m not told how I want to be told, I become upset. As if there’s a proper way to tell someone about death when there isn’t.

      Yes, people you meet and for one reason or another, and the conversation never extends to more than pleasantries. Then you learn more on FB – what bugs them, what turns them on, what they most like to do in the dead of night, who cares about them. Some of this is welcome. Some is not. On the whole though, social media’s given me more insight into my tribe and this extends into our face-to-face time, which is wonderful.

  3. That gives rise to some questions, G.

    If authenticating details die with the owner, is shutting down a page then impossible?

    Is it possible to befriend a dead person?

    Has anyone gone the step and done created a video/text message for publication after death?

    I’m afraid I’m too superstitious to create a message like that, as if, in the preparation, I would be courting death.

  4. Shutting down the page becomes impossible unless somebody has your details, yes. And you can’t befriend a dead person – although presumably you can still “subscribe” to them. The services like the one I mentioned allow you to register all sorts of messages, to be played a specified times. It’s all rather morbid but fairly interesting, I blogged about it at one point.

  5. Is it possible for you to post a link to that blog here, G? I was coming at mortality and social media from a personal perspective, and in doing so, covered little of practicalities.

    The fact that shutting down a FB page can be impossible gives rise to discussion on permanency, as apposed to the transiency of the web. Lisa Dempster spoke about this at Write Online for the Offset Creative Arts Festival at Footscray Community Arts Centre last Saturday. Not so long ago, Lisa closed down her first blog. You could feel the enormity of what she had done as she spoke – as if she had removed a perhaps too honest/raw part of herself from public view.

    Prior to this I thought more on the transiency of the web, not its permanence. I don’t like to think too much about whatI am going to leave behind, that is, if I will have said and shown too much and what my kids are going to think of my FB page after I’m gone, because I believe this stilts expression and truth. But all this information out there long after the life… is it something that should be thought about, like a will?

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