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30 June 2016

Amid the political chaos, I have my first experience of digital death

To me, my “friend” lived on Facebook, and she died there.

By Eleanor Margolis

While the UK was busy collapsing, I noticed someone had died.

Facebook told me. Social media often tells us when people die. But, this year at least, they tend to be people like Prince and David Bowie; people so mind-bogglingly famous it’s hard to believe anyone ever really knew them. But last week, for the first time in my life, Facebook told me I had lost a friend. Albeit a friend whose voice I never heard.  A literal “Facebook friend”. Someone who I got to know, in a miniscule way, through likes and comments.

She read this column and often shared her thoughts on it with me. That’s how we became “friends”. I hate to put “friends” in quotation marks like that (there, I’ve done it again). It feels cold, but I want to stress that I’m not equipped to write a eulogy for a woman who – in my world – existed entirely inside my laptop. Although my pixelated image of her, built on roughly three years’ worth of brief exchanges, is of someone not much older than me but much, much wiser. Likewise, someone less privileged than me but much, much more positive.

This was my first experience of digital death – of having someone crop up in my newsfeed nearly every day, and then not. It was – alongside Brexit all the more so – a stark lesson in impermanence. I spend a lot of time bargaining with my dead grandmother. I never met her either, but that’s never stopped me asking her for stuff. When I’ve been bedridden with depression I’ve asked her, in my head, to make it stop. As if dead people are magic. I talk to both my dead granddads too, although less so because men are sort of ineffectual. I don’t know where I think they all are. In a celestial Gants Hill front room, maybe. Arguing. The likelihood is they just aren’t. Aren’t anywhere or anyone. They are all the less extant when, all of a sudden, another person with (I imagine) plenty of magic dead relatives of her own, dies young. So many of us make superstitious bargains, but we still get fired and depressed and mowed down by double-deckers outside Greggs on a Tuesday afternoon.

And, although there’s something incredibly unceremonious about learning about a friend’s (or even a “friend”’s) death on Facebook, maybe that’s just where we’re at now. How else would I have found out, anyway? To me, my “friend” lived on Facebook, and she died there. I watched her real life friends say goodbye to her on her wall. I’ve never seen anyone communicate with the dead on social media before and it is – I suppose – in no way less human than me asking a woman who has been dead for nearly forty years to cheer me up or stop me from getting cancer.

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The way we grieve is changing. Within one week, I have seen both digital condolences and – while house hunting in Streatham – a nineteenth century cockney-style funeral carriage, driven by horses. The horses had black plumes; the online messages had crying emojis. Both are valid, because death is mad and incomprehensible.

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I don’t think anyone dead is reading this. If they are, I really hope I’m not coming across as dead-ist. I, honest to God, just felt a chill that I’m trying to convince myself wasn’t my grandma telling me to get a fucking grip.

But there is one person in particular who probably isn’t reading this. And I wish this wasn’t this. And I wish she was.