If I were to be stripped bare in my honesty, I’d admit that I’ve been sitting with this open document, staring at its blinking reminder of words I have yet to write, overwhelmed with my turbulent seas of emotions since the beginning of September. I’ve partially dreaded the dredging up of memories suppressed and feelings muted that I’ve used as coping mechanisms instead of letting the truth of mourning and the stabbing pain of grief pass through my body. Yet, there’s been this pulling- this yearning- to let all that I’ve barred off wash over me to feel her spirit as I ramble through these thoughts. But what is there to even say when you lose a friend? How do any words suffice to describe the pain in your chest and the human-shaped absence that sits atop your lungs when a loved one takes their own life? Where do you even begin when this person only existed over a screen and never held your physical touch?
No one tells you how different it is to grieve an internet friend. It doesn’t follow the same foundation as other grief. It isn’t fluttering memories, or gentle touches, or familiar scents. It simply isn’t photos passed around and belongings cherished as a group of those who knew this person rally around community rooms to heal. None of it’s physical. None of it can be felt with your fingertips or absorbed through the nostalgia of smells and tight grasps. It’s a digital footprint that hollows out your heart but is absent once the screen is powered down. And, in some ways, this type of cyber-grief buries itself deep into your psyche that can be hard to escape.
Because internet friendships cannot be suppressed. They cannot be shuffled away in your mind’s filing cabinet, only to be pulled when something or someone triggers their memory. Internet friends are sprinkled throughout our accounts, and their profiles, their words, their presence does not fade away. It’s as if the internet is a looking glass into the timeline of our friendship that we can revisit time and time again, words permanently tied to a DM or a WhatsApp conversation, or even a Twitter exchange. Your growing relationship tumbles throughout technology like a digital scrapbook where the nostalgia is based around timestamps and bouncing conversations. Creating a peculiar environment where losing an internet friend is the only form of grief that plays out a person’s spirit start to finish on the heels of our digital footprints.
When I heard the news at the end of July about my friend taking her own life, there was a spiral of emotions I wasn’t ready to nurture that bled out of me almost feverishly. It felt like flames had singed my skin as I had to seek out the answers to her death on my own. Yet, there I was, stone-cold, as I peered numbly at her obituary that seemed to cause the anchor I had been holding so desperately onto, to sink further and further away from my stability. Afterwards, a dark cloud resided over me as I did what most do when someone in their life commits suicide, review any and all conversations in my head of what I could’ve done to change the outcome. This ate me alive for weeks until a member of her family reached out to me and we had a mutual sense of catharsis speaking to each other about her and the light that emitted that found its place in both of us. Yet, it was one aspect of that conversation that latched itself onto my heart: The family member I had spoken to explained that my name would come out of her mouth often, to the point where they knew who I was just from her chatter. I can’t exactly explain why that impacted me the way it did, but cascades of emotion found its way out of me.
Perhaps it was in the recognition that this close friend cherished our friendship the way I did, or perhaps, it was just eye-opening to be faced with the impact you can have on someone who you’ve only known online. I’m no stranger to discussing friendships I’ve made online to those family and friends I know off the interwebs, but there’s this extreme weight to be on the other end of that and this person is now missing. It’s strange to absorb it, not quite knowing the extent of an imprint you make on another, but knowing you did somehow just by existing in the same realm as they did through a social media platform. It’s rattling. It’s overwhelming. It’s humbling. Yet, it gives me a blip of hope for how strong and impactful online friendships can be as technology only advances.
And, unfortunately, I have dealt with those who have been dismissive of the grief that can come with an internet friend- the inability to understand how someone you’ve never met in person can evoke such hardy emotions, but it’s so much more than touch or physical connection. On a certain level, internet friends aren’t bogged down by the distractions of real life. There isn’t a smog of surface-level interactions or casual hangouts. You must get to know this person and be a part of this person’s life without the obstruction of the outside world. It’s more intimate. It’s more insightful. It creates a much tighter bond that is hard to replicate. Internet friends are vital because they force us to look inside ourselves instead of to the outside. They allow us to express a more authentic side of who we are and that should be cherished fiercely.
I won’t lie. This period of mourning has been difficult to overcome. It’s the hardest loss I’ve had to wade through (which I should be thankful for, in a sense, as 23 years of age is a fortunate stretch of time to not have to battle through the grieving process beforehand). It’s been a rollercoaster of emotion that has me experiencing bouts of complete disarray, numbness, and then sandbanks of content- which I tend to feel guilty towards as if her memory is slowly being pulled from my chest. In the beginning, I found myself combing through our lost conversations- laughing wetly at jokes made and innocence felt at the spark of our friendship. Feverishly rushing to contact each other when something we both cared about made news or being absolutely amazed that it seemed as though we shared this cosmic connection where our brains synced in ways they never did with anyone else. I even found myself tentatively searching through photos and posts we tagged each other in to feel any sense of warmth in a time where I felt so distant and cold.
Yet, I’ve refrained from obsessively reliving our friendship timeline recently. It’s more for my mental health than it is anything else, and these days I have felt winds of encouragement wrap their arms around me. Although, there have been lows of melancholy during the moments I casually come across a message or a post of hers that sends me back to square one- even triggering the upheaval of suicidal ideation I had as a teenager. But, then I glance up at the swinging charm bracelet I have hung on my rearview mirror of an oak tree and remember the new life that was sowed when I planted seeds in her honor at an endangered national park, and serenity washes over me.
I would like to think she lives vicariously through those seeds, spreading new life, and casting light as her buds stretch towards the sky. It warms me knowing she will never be gone, as she will always be found in the region of the summer air growing and breathing through mother nature.
In a strange way, I’ve come to terms that I’m alright, but I’m not alright. And as I wipe my eyes one last time as I type, I just want to reiterate: Check up on your friends. Check up on your family. So many of us are going through our own mental defeats right now. You never know who needs just a small act of kindness sent their way.
And to my darling S, you were such an enigmatic light. You made many people in your life feel as happy and as loved as anyone always should. You are a force to be reckoned with, and I am fortunate I was even given the pleasure to know someone as marvelous as you. I will forever be devastated you were hurting this badly. I just hope you aren’t anymore. I miss you dearly.
If you or anyone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline that is available 24/7 at 800–273–8255