I sat down in Terminal 3 at Heathrow, in among the perfume-spritzers and backpackers, the whining children and the business travellers, and opened my laptop. I went to Facebook, uploaded a picture and wrote this post: “I was due to spend tomorrow evening celebrating my wedding anniversary in a London restaurant. Instead I'll be blinking into the bright sunlight as I get off a 24-hour flight in Auckland, New Zealand. Mum is failing and the family is gathering. Here is a picture of me and Von, my dearest Mum, just two months ago. She was so happy to see me.”
Now, I’m not much of a Facebook user, and I’ve never written anything so personal on it. But I wanted MY world to know that something huge was happening to me. Twelve hours after getting the call that anyone who lives far from their parents fears, I was boarding a plane that would take me to my 89-year-old mother’s hospital bedside. Even though my older brothers had kept me posted, I was frightened of what I’d find.
I didn’t look at my laptop again until I was in Auckland, but my post had dozens and dozens of comments below, from school friends of 40 years ago to recent colleagues, from extended family to people I haven’t seen in decades, from across the UK, the US, Australasia, the world. Whether it was simply a heart emoji or a heartfelt paragraph, every single one of them felt like it buoyed me up just a little more as I prepared to see my mother.
Mum had broken her hip in a fall, and recovery from an operation to give her a replacement had not gone “as planned”. It was as if she was in a nightmare, trying to climb out of her bed, barely able to be understood. Still, she knew it was me and we hugged and kissed, and she gripped my hand as strongly as she had when I was a child.
But she deteriorated further and fast; only two days after I’d arrived, she died.
You’d think – I thought – that living so far away for more than half my life, I would not feel quite so undone by her death. But that isn’t the way it works. My mother was a primal force in my life; when her life ended I felt like an unmoored boat in a windswept bay. Would I crash into the rocks or be swept out to sea? I had no idea.
It’s more manageable for others to write something thoughtful, and more manageable for you to read it
On the day of her death I posted again on Facebook, focusing not on my loss, but my mother’s life, which involved travels and adventures across all the continents, and included intrepid visits to China in the 1970s as well as a doughty hike up to Everest Base Camp in Nepal. As I wrote, “She was game for it all. I feel very proud of her, but so sad to know we can never spend time together again.”
Again, the response was immediate and incredibly supportive. These tiny messages are just as touching as the condolence notes that previous generations sent to a grieving family, but they were virtually instantaneous, tumbling down my timeline. It was particularly helpful to me, in the middle of the jet-lagged nights, to be anchored by people’s comments, either offering me their sympathy or remembering the woman herself.
Bereavement is a massive life experience and many people struggle to cope with other people’s responses to their sadness. As London psychotherapist Wendy Bristow told me, this can range from awkwardness and avoidance to totally over-the-top emoting. “People who have lost a loved one often don’t know what kind of response they are going to get, and that’s very isolating.
“In a way Facebook seems to have gotten around that. It’s more manageable for others to write something thoughtful, and more manageable for you to read it. If you get upset, you’re not there with the person, and the risk of embarrassment is far less.”
So, without thinking it through, my use of Facebook released me from actually saying the words “my mother is dead”, as I wasn’t there with my wobbling chin and my erratic response, and I didn’t have to actually see if people looked untouched or embarrassed on hearing my news. And for my Facebook friends, it was a small action for them to show they cared.
Dealing with my feelings in the weeks since Mum’s death has, of course, been sad and lonely. She’s the only person I seem to actually want to talk to. But that’s getting slightly less acute. I hope that Mum was right when she would tell me “Time heals all wounds”, though it’s a deeper, bloodier wound than I have ever suffered before.
In the meantime, though, I feel I want to stand up just a little for the much-maligned Facebook. It may be stealing your personal data and selling you stuff you didn’t even know you needed, but it’s also finding all those who know you, even just a little, and tapping into their humanity for a few minutes. And, when you’re in shock and pain and disbelief, there are nothing like loving words to make things feel a little less worse, and your loss a little more liveable with.
It’s true that the social-media connection is fleeting and its touch is light, but in this case and at this time – when a death is imminent or has just happened – that seems the perfect fit. To me, it felt like a hundred hands were taking it in turns to squeeze my hand. And, as a consequence, the world was a much less desolate place in which to grieve.