In August, Atul Gawande published an article in The New Yorker on end of life care which referenced a 2008 study by the Coping with Cancer project that attempted to assess how the manner in which a person dies affects the mental health of the family and friends who watch him go. The study found that the survivors of cancer patients whose last days were spent in mechanized intensive care units tended to suffer post-mortem depression three times more often than the survivors of terminal patients whose last days had been spent at home under hospice care. The implication was that holding on for too long, and in the wrong ways, can disrupt the natural rhythms of grieving.
Recently I’ve been thinking about how this framework—the idea that there are better and worse ways to let someone go—might be applied to the Facebook era of human relations, in which friendships don’t really end so much as they attenuate into superficial voyeurism and token gestures. This past February, for example, I received good wishes (prompted of course by an auto-generated reminder) on my birthday from elementary school acquaintances who I had not spoken with in nearly twenty years (and I’m only 29!). Jake F., who I played Little League with but have not seen since, was one of them: “Hope it’s a good one!” he wrote on my wall.
On a gut level, I couldn’t figure out what to make of this. Was I supposed to feel happy to hear from long lost Jake? Was I supposed to write back “thanks” as though it were completely natural to be wished a happy birthday by a person whose existence is barely more real to me than a character’s in a novel? There seemed to be no categories or schema in the evolutionarily designed layout of my brain to process an encounter that bore qualities in common with a person coming back from the dead.
This feeling of interpersonal vertigo was particularly acute a few months ago when an item in my newsfeed announced that Josh W. was engaged. Josh and I had become friends in the first half of the George W. Bush era, during a year in which we taught sixth grade together in New York City. We were the same age and both liked to play basketball and by Columbus Day we were spending a lot of time together. I’d hang out in his classroom in the mornings before the kids arrived and after school we’d sometimes go play pool and drink Budweiser at an Irish bar located improbably in the midst of what by then had become a Latino neighborhood of the Bronx. We talked about a lot of things, but mostly we never tired of talking about the students we had in common.
When that school year ended, I left teaching and New York to travel. While I was abroad, and then afterwards when I settled in Philadelphia, Josh and I kept in touch over email and occasional phone calls, and a couple times when I was back in New York I looked him up. Those encounters dwindled, though. I was sad when we began to lose touch and I missed the feeling that I associated with the easy period in my life when Josh and I had become friends. But at the same time I was all right with the idea that we weren’t going to be important parts of each other’s lives going forward. Our friendship was tied to a place and a time that had passed and it didn’t diminish how much the friendship had meant to me (or to Josh either, I hope), that we wouldn’t be calling each other up when we were 60 to shoot the shit.
But then there I was, some years after we’d last talked, staring at my computer screen and the news that Josh was going to be getting married. I saw that a few dozen people “Liked” the announcement and I clicked the thumbs-up icon, but immediately I felt a little ill, like I’d just cheapened the memory of our friendship somehow. I thought about adding a small note—”Congratulations” or “So excited to hear the news!!”—but that seemed off, too.
I could have called Josh, or written him a personal email, but I didn’t, although maybe I should have. We all trail a line of relationships behind us as we grow older, and we all have our own standards that define when and how we let go of people who were once important in our lives (and when and how we accept being let go of ourselves). I could see why it might be rewarding or interesting or comforting to know that with Facebook you never really need to put a friendship to rest completely. But to me it’s comforting and disorienting in the way of ventilators and feeding tubes that sustain a narrow definition of life long after the real thing has run its course.