Death of a Stranger
A woman I know died yesterday. Or maybe I didn’t know her; I’m not sure. I never met her in real life. She and I engaged in a circuitous flirtation on a now-defunct social networking site years ago. She was lissome, blonde, outdoorsy, good with gardening and tools—a Southern tomboy grown up gorgeous who still loved her daddy. I remember a photo of her doing an exuberant handstand on the beach. She suffered from chronic insomnia, and when I told her about the sleep soliloquy from Henry IV, Part II, she memorized it, and later told me that some nights she would try to put herself to sleep by reciting it to herself. We virtually pinky-swore that we’d visit one of the islands of North Carolina’s Outer Bank together. Our next step should’ve been to meet in real life, but scheduling or expense prevented it, I don’t remember, and without further escalation our courtship lost momentum. Eventually it just faded away, as relationships on the internet do. The last time I heard from her she left me a voice mail message in the middle of the night, reciting Shakespeare into the phone.
Even after we fell out of touch, she remained one of those supernumeraries on your mind’s stage—occasionally something reminds you of them, you wonder whatever happened with that whole thing, and think about getting back in touch, if only to say I was just thinking about you. Oddly, I had thought of her just a few days before I heard about her death, when PINKYSWEAR turned out to be an answer in the Saturday crossword. The answer only came to me (as crossword answers sometimes do) the next day, Sunday, the same day she died. Arthur Koestler, in The Roots of Coincidence, suggests that such synchronicities are the unseen web that connects seemingly unrelated events, like incalculable lines of longitude that run perpendicular to the more familiar, well-charted latitudinal lines of cause and effect. This is all a little woo-woo for me, but I do have to ask myself: how frequently did I think of her at that point in my life? Once every six months? Once a year? What are the odds she would come to mind within a day of her death? These thoughts feel alien and unlike me, like the deeper, slower-moving emotions of which they are only the surface ripples.
It was a single-car accident: she ran head-on into a tree, and was pronounced dead at the scene. She was only 32. A friend of mine who also (sort of) knew her from the same site told me the news. He described it as “sad and weird,” which, in its groping inarticulacy, felt just right. It’s a virtual feeling—unreal and fleeting, almost evaporating as soon as you close the laptop, only coming back to you when you close your eyes at night, like an afterimage of the sun. I wouldn’t presume to call it grief—I have no right to anything you could call grief over this woman. Down in North Carolina, the people who really knew her—her family, friends, her fiancée (I didn’t even know she’d gotten engaged)—are mourning for real. It hurts even to try to imagine how they must feel. I won’t even name her here, because I would not offend her family by presuming to speak as though I’d known her.
Some of my disquiet is this uncertainty about what I’m entitled to feel. It’s an unprecedented sort of mourning, for a kind of relationship that didn’t exist twenty years ago, outside of what they used to call “pen pals.” There’s a name for them now—“parasocial relationships”: online friendships, feuds and flirtations, the camaraderie of the gamer battlefield, celebrity crushes, passionate personal enmity with the President. There’s also term for how I feel now—“disenfranchised grief,” grief over people to whom we have no officially sanctioned ties (illicit lovers, exes) over stigmatized or ignominious deaths (suicides, ODs) or deaths that aren’t taken as seriously by society as those of family or friends (miscarriages, the death of pets). I suppose learning that there’s a name for what you’re suffering ought to reassure you, make you feel less alone, but it never does this for me; instead it desaturates it of meaning, turns it into a magazine condition, easily treatable with a list of tips. I recently read an article about this phenomenon occasioned by all the real but non-tragic losses common in the recent pandemic—missed weddings or graduations, cancelled vacations or sports seasons. The article urged readers to allow themselves the right to their grief, to take their own losses seriously. Though on the other hand you don’t want to be the diva at the funeral who makes their own histrionic grief the center of attention while the widow’s struggling to hold it together, or obliviously lament your postponed trip to Greece or book release party to someone who lost a parent.
Reading my friend(?)’s obituary, I saw that the man who first happened across the accident and pulled her from the wreck had posted a comment, urgently asking for information about her memorial service. He must’ve felt an intimate connection to her, too. In a sense, neither of us really knew her. Or we both did, but in differently incomplete, mutually exclusive ways: he’d never heard her speak, or ever even saw her alive, but he touched her and tried to save her; I never met her, but we had secret codes and in-jokes, late-night talks and promises. And even though we hadn’t talked in years, I knew she was still out there somewhere, living her life in the world alongside mine, and now I know that she is gone from it. It’s not as if we were ever likely to revive our correspondence, let alone consummate our flirtation (although life is long and strange, and you never know), and yet I’m still mourning the possibility truncated. I know now for a certainty that I will never see her in person, we’ll never touch, we’ll never go to that island together. Even if I were to visit it someday, it won’t be the same island. The sacred bond of the pinky swear is broken.
Some of my disquiet is at how little perturbation a death can cause: a human being gone, a whole universe of experience and memory obliterated, and only one electronic degree of separation away all it occasions is “sad and weird.” I’m also uncomfortably aware of how her abrupt death has unfairly elevated her in my mind and made itself the most important fact about her, even though it had nothing to do with her—it was just a random accident that happened in the last seconds of her life. (John F. Kennedy never even heard the name Lee Harvey Oswald.) I wish I had known her and could grieve her better. C.S. Lewis called grief “a solemn joy,”—the price we pay, the suffering we’ve earned the right to, for having loved someone. I’m mourning the loss of loss itself.
I find myself groping for something to do with my ghostly feelings for her. If I’d known her better I might’ve gone to her funeral, talked with other people who’d loved her. I thought about donating money to the charity named in her obituary, or of sending a message of sympathy—but to whom? Her family? They’ve never even heard of me. In the end I just wrote this. I have such a little handful of memories to remember her by, like the contents of a kid’s pocket at the end of a day’s play: an old photo, a solemn child’s oath, a weary King’s lament. I gently toss this one after her, like the traditional handful of earth, into the open grave of the internet:
[…] O gentle Sleep
Nature's soft nurse, how have I frighted thee,
That thou no more wilt weigh my eyelids down,
And steep my senses in forgetfulness.
Tim Kreider is the author of two collections of essays, We Learn Nothing and I Wrote This Book Because I Love You, as well as three collections of cartoons. He's been a contributor to the New York Times, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, medium.com, Film Quarterly, The Comics Journal and Fangoria.