He died on a Thursday morning last month, just a few weeks shy of his 39th birthday. He left behind a 36-year-old widow and two children who were old enough to be sad but young enough to not fully understand how different growing up was going to be for them.
I got the call as I sat down to a brown-bagged sandwich in my office and an afternoon of grading student writing. It was one of those sudden deaths – one second he was someone I hadn’t seen in months and the next second he had collapsed on the floor giving all my friends from college a sad reason to come together. No one knew much more than that, my college roommate Frank told me. He’d let me know as soon as he found out about the arrangements.
I shut the door to my office and, after a few minutes of stunned, recollection wrote a post on Facebook:
“I always admired the love and loyalty Dave Nunez had for his friends and family, and his big, booming laugh always made me smile. The world is much quieter and much sadder for me now.”
Within minutes I had a message from a mutual friend that simply said “What????” I took the post down and sent an immediate apology to the friend who had found out about his death on Facebook, wondering how pissed I would have been if this had been the way I had found out about Dave’s death:
“Kristen is off for some up-hill sprints before work.”
“Alicia can’t believe her neighbor is just getting around to throwing out her Christmas tree. People, its MARCH!”
“Danielle is sick of hearing about Charlie Sheen.”
“I’m sitting here mourning the death of a friend who died way too young.”
But it didn’t matter – all across our corner of Facebook friends were posting tributes to Dave and condolence messages to his family. If you didn’t hear directly – and more than once I have heard of a half-forgotten friend who died months or even years after the fact – at least Facebook let you know within a few hours.
By that night a separate memorial page had been started where Dave’s family asked friends to post stories and photos. I couldn’t watch the videos people posted: to hear that booming laugh, to see him singing karaoke or to hear him passionately argue why a soon-to-be-born niece could not be named Melody (“at least until she gets through middle school, she’s going to be called Smelly Melly”) was too much for me. I tried, but being more of a words and pictures guy, I opted to read people’s memories and look at the collected snapshots.
On Saturday morning, my journalism training kicked in, having been taught that people don’t “pass away” or “expire.” Whether you’re writing an obituary or a crime story, people simply die. I tried to ignore some of the earlier infractions of people trying to make young, tragic, death sound nicer than it was, but I finally exploded. I yelled at the computer screen and startled my girlfriend.
“Youthful transition? Youthful transition? That’s what we’re calling death now?”
A few weeks earlier that same girlfriend and I had watched Winter’s Bone in a futile effort to catch up on Oscar nominees. We both cringed during the scene when the camera panned over a photo album to reveal yellowing Polaroids of deceased relatives laid out in their caskets.
“Does your family do that?”
“Must be a rural thing,” I said. “I mean, I kind of get it – we take photos of every major life event, so why not funerals? But it also kind of creeps me out.”
More than 600 people lined up at the funeral home on Sunday afternoon, most of them with smart phones, so it was inevitable I would get creeped out when someone posted photos from the wake to the ever-expanding memorial page. There was no casket in the photos, or the funeral home, for that matter – Dave was to be cremated once the autopsy was completed. But it still made me uncomfortable, and it still made me question if Facebook was the place for us to let our grief play out.
Then on Monday, at the memorial service, something shifted. I started thinking about what my therapist had told me when I saw her the morning after Dave died, about people grieving in different ways. So while I cringed to see my friend alive again for a few seconds on a video clip, other people may have taken comfort in that. And while some people may have seconded my thoughts on the funeral home photos, other people surely were proud to see how many people had turned out to honor our friend.
Sure, I rolled my eyes when I saw a handful of people using iPhones to record the entire memorial service. But, it was, after all, as nice as those kinds of things can be. Dave was an eclectic guy, and so was the service: his sister read the 23rd Psalm while a friend led the scores of people in the Mourner’s Kaddish. Another friend played an ensemble of Dave’s favorite songs on an acoustic guitar, a performance that covered everything from the Pixies to the Police. I may never want to watch the video of the service, but someone else may want to.
And now they can.
Two of my college roommates delivered the eulogy. They cribbed from the post I had finally left on the Facebook page, the one where I recalled meeting Dave 20 years earlier and noting “What struck me most about him was that his interest in people was always genuine. There was always warmth and love that I couldn’t even fake on a good day, and he was one of those people who made you feel better about yourself when you were around him.”
A few months earlier I had marveled at how much of my college students’ lives take place on Facebook. They don’t email or call each other – they “book” each other. During the class discussion they asked me why people in their thirties, people my age, use Facebook.
“To see who has gotten fat since high school,” I quipped.
But at the reception following the memorial service I saw Facebook, for better or worse, is now so much more than that, even for people like me, who think of it as a time waster and a contact manager, and not much else. Dave’s wife Judith told me she had been unable to sleep a few nights earlier and she had woken up and done what so many of us do when we can’t sleep: she went online. The first thing she found were my recollections of Dave and that had given her comfort.
And she was also taking comfort that her children, who will never get to appreciate their father and have a relationship with him as adults, will at least get to see what he meant to so many other people. As I said goodbye to Judith, her oldest son, Adam, was tugging on her arm asking if he could ride home with a family friend. She said yes and he scampered off.
“Keep posting memories and pictures,” she said. “For him.”