I was in the middle of a workday when I received a call from a friend. “I just realised that in last few months, I’ve lost three of my ex-schoolmates to cancer”. I took a break, found myself a quiet corner and we began to talk. She was in pain at the loss of young lives. I sensed that there was something else she wanted to share. I waited. Soon enough, she spoke about how a few of her acquaintances had attended the funeral of one of the ex-schoolmates and shared pictures and videos from the funeral on the school WhatsApp group. Merely talking about it left us both disturbed. Suddenly, shock overtook pain. “I am ashamed,” she said, as we disconnected.
It’s been two weeks since that call and the conversation is still running in my head. There was even a selfie that was clicked at the funeral; some of the classmates were meeting up after long.
Time and again, we debate the merits of social media. We block and unlock contacts, we lay down rules, we share, we hit the like button, we play with the latest filters, and more. Social media has invaded our lives and there is no running away from it. Sadly, today, RIP posts are as common online as weather updates. I have seen notices of prayer meets shared on Facebook — of course, they have the visibility and reach intended and at many times, unintended individuals. They are the modern age equivalent of obituaries in the newspaper. People are asking questions — what should one do with the virtual existence of the departed, should their accounts be de-activated? Is it okay to leave messages like he/she is in a better place? There are blogs that list etiquette to keep in mind when talking about death in the virtual world.
All these discussions are valid and important, yet they make one uncomfortable. And if they don’t, we are not walking in the right direction. Death is scary, as is delivering the news of death. You’d want someone to sit you down, prepare you to hear the words that will from there on divide your life between was and is. In days gone by, telegrams were sent to deliver the news. In other cases, trunk calls were booked. Now, news reaches us via WhatsApp, almost in the same manner as we receive an invite for a brunch next weekend or a wedding RSVP request the next month.
We’re living in the busiest times and have found ways to stay connected. Tweets, pixels, and feeds are helping reduce the physical distance. But we need to ask ourselves something. Loss of life is personal and grief is not public news. When did we begin to treat death as a commodity?
A couple of years ago, a sister’s friend lost her husband. She’d barely managed to catch her breath when her phone started buzzing with notifications across platforms, asking her if she was okay and wondering if what they’d heard was true. In the middle of uncountable and ear-deafening beeps, she dealt with a weeping child in her lap and figured out the process to get a death certificate, and surrounded herself with family and friends who would ‘really’ help her deal with the situation. By the time her sister had reached the hospital her pain was public and she was flooded with suggestions on how to deal with the loss.
Of course, there is little one can do at such times. Genuine words and warmth that reach us over networks can mean as much as a physical hug or a shoulder to cry on.
Death affects the knowns and unknown; it brings ugly reminders of hard times we’ve faced and, at times, it serves as a reminder of our own mortality. So we begin to express; perhaps, the only way we know. The online tributes start to flow in. But here’s the thing, if we were to attend a funeral or have a memory of the departed to share, can we take a moment to find a better way to remember him/her? Can we find in us the sensitivity to respect the feelings of those suffering?
For, when we begin to trivialise death, there’s not much left to say about life.