Go West, Part III: Social Media is Disconnecting Us All

After driving cross-country like an arrow in under four days, I arrived in my hometown on the last day of May and sat at my friend T’s grave. I then spent half of June teleworking from my mom’s house in California, and later made my way up to Washington state to see my dad and stepmom before turning the wheel back east towards Virginia and home.

I didn’t take much leave during my three-week road trip west. The deal I’d hastily cut with my office had been to work remotely from California so I could spend time decompressing with family while not leaving our team in the lurch. I did, however, voluntarily and consistently work on east coast time. I aligned my schedule with my colleagues’ by signing on at 5:00 a.m. west coast time, taking my lunch after my family arose for breakfast, and signing off by 2:00 p.m. Thus I was free relatively early each day to enjoy some sun and do whatever else I wanted. That mainly involved spending time with family and old friends, sitting quietly in the cemetery, or visiting places I had memories with T where I needed to be alone and process my grief.

I had thought getting out of Virginia and being back in California where I grew up, and where T had lived and died, would help me start to come to some kind of peace with his death. I wasn’t wrong.

In a way, being home was a catharsis. Taking the action of solo driving out there felt restorative, too, like a partial healing of the wound of missing his January burial, which his family had handled privately. But the trip for its healing properties also carried an anguishing level of regret, reminding me of how many times I had visited home in prior years and neither seen nor reached out to him. I had let him linger somewhere between a commemorative friend and a friend who was always present but active only online. That had been wrong in many ways, and now it was too late.

Being home also compelled me to return to some of our local haunts to face whatever waited for me. Some of those long-ago places – homes where he’d used to live, places we’d hung out, sites of important conversations – I had not been to in over 20 years. I felt drawn to those places, irrespective of whether the memories were happy or sad. Facing down the place where he had ended his life was definitely the worst location, so I went there the first full day I was in town to get it out of the way.

He had died in a forest. I didn’t want to become afraid of forests. Just the thought made me resentful. Despite how terribly sad it was sitting there quietly, there was a funny moment while I was there involving a radio program someone was broadcasting from their boat on the reservoir. The noise shattered my peace. As the voices blared across the water, I almost burst out laughing. I silently asked T if he could hear it now, and speculated about what he would have done if he had heard such a broadcast during his last visit there. It made me snicker to think of his annoyance, and then sad to wonder if he might have been beyond caring. I also wondered if he had sent this to me as some kind of sign, in memory of his previous rants to me on the subject that was the specific topic of the programming. It was so apropos it was unbelievable. The hosts went on and on as I cried and laughed at the same time. You, I thought.

I went and sat quietly with some Sierra Nevada one day after work in the forest where T died, trying to make sense of things

I also went and sat at his grave half a dozen times during my weeks at home, bringing flowers and trying to connect to some understanding. Since I’d learned he had taken his own life, I’d had to grapple not only with losing a dear friend to suicide, but with my surprising need to take another look at our past together.

I didn’t expect anything from our long-resolved 1998-2002 dating relationship to ever resurface again for me. Our open line of communication through social media, his presence, kindness, and willingness to communicate after the finality of our separation (compared to the more contentious abandonments that characterized breakups with other past long-term boyfriends), and a number of more private factors made me not fixate on hanging onto our past. In fact, compared to how much time I had wasted obsessing over “clearing the air” with other impossible and unworthy people from my past, I hadn’t given my relationship with him enough thought over the years.

That was probably because although we had broken each other’s hearts, we had also made amends, and ended closer as friends than we even had been as a couple. In the moments we had each needed one another, we’d had chances to prove our goodwill. Before I left for Peace Corps in 2002, he trusted me with some of his most private pain. He knew I would be there for him, and I was. And we had both moved on into stable partnerships that had lasted more than a decade each. As far as I knew, these days he was alive and happy in the world. I’d thought: Why go back? I can find him if I need to. Every time we had reached out to each other, nothing but positivity had come back. Nothing hurts here. Let it be.

When I went to a local bike park to make a donation and arrange for a memorial plaque for T, my odometer did something funny in the parking lot. I later did the math and realized I had also learned of his death seven months and seven days after it occurred.

But suddenly his death, the complicated circumstances surrounding it, and my inability to ever discuss anything with him again forced me to reevaluate my thinking. All of these dormant questions I didn’t even know I had came bubbling back up, and the only person who could answer them was now gone. I felt blindsided and stupid for surrendering so many chances to talk. But I also should have thought beyond the paradigm of connecting based on the past; much more importantly, he belonged in the present. I was angry with myself for not sharing more fun times with him while I still could.

So many things spoken and unspoken between us, a million things he told me that I didn’t listen to with an ear towards forever and now cannot recall. I can’t take any more pictures with him. I can’t ask him about his interpretation of different situations between us and how we handled them. I didn’t think it mattered, but somehow now it might. I burned my journals from the 1980s up through the early 2000s back in 2014 when I joined the Foreign Service; so many sweet memories of our early days gone forever.

T’s suicide forced me to re-examine our entire relationship through a new perceptual lens, taking into consideration this new information about him that in some ways did not surprise me, and in other ways made me feel I’d never known him at all. It was like the entire narrative arc of my life had been rewritten, after too many parts of the story were missing to make sense of it all. What character had I played?

Marking the 25th anniversary since I graduated from high school during my visit

I have looked back through the last decade of our post-analog chats and messages, and asked myself why I hadn’t called more, or said something more substantive when I’d had the chance. I read through the lines of every single thing he’d said and saw clues to his unhappiness, but I’d missed it. Why had I not picked up the phone? Texting and chatting feel so superficial. How are you supposed to get a sense of what is actually happening when you have this wall of social media between you, disguising the tone, making you second guess whether you’re being angsty, or obtrusive, or overthinking?

I probably will never forgive myself for not reaching out when I was in town the month before he died; his sister and former partner have both told me he probably wouldn’t have been up for a visit then because he wasn’t doing well. But that doesn’t make me feel better at all. I was only six miles away. Ultimately, the loss of him in the world is the worst part of all. Such a generous, thoughtful, and unique person – needlessly gone too soon.

On my final visit to the cemetery, I tried an exercise called “goodbye letter” that I had seen on a grief website. It had made me so angry when I first saw it that I didn’t even save the prompts. I didn’t want to say goodbye. He didn’t say goodbye to me, and however ready he was to leave was more ready than I was for him to go. But sitting there, I thought it might help. So I scrolled and scrolled through my phone searching until I found it again.

I ignored the two arborists nearby who were working high in the cemetery’s pine trees, pruning and trimming branches. The men ignored me back, trying to be unobtrusive as I fussed with my yellow roses. Of course there would have to be people here the last time I visited, I thought, rolling my eyes. I looked at the prompts and slowly composed my answers. “I am saying goodbye because… Saying goodbye makes me feel… I remember a time when we… You taught me… Something I want you to know is… I will always remember…”

When I had answered all the questions, I listened, but didn’t hear anything. I sat silently for almost an hour, unable to leave. I tried twice, but twice got out of my car and came back in tears. How could I just leave? I tried to make myself mad. He left! something inside me yelled. But it didn’t work. I didn’t feel mad. I didn’t believe he left, either. I just felt miserable because I believe suicide is a liar and a thief. I had an 11-hour drive to make through Northern California and Oregon up to my dad’s in coastal Washington state, and my brother and stepmom were both ill in different hospitals. My heart felt heavy. Wherever I went, I would be leaving someone. And no matter what, I would now arrive at my dad’s after dark and he would be waiting up.

Then, as the arborists worked, I saw a pinecone fall from the tree above T’s grave and land right by the roses I’d left him and his grandparents. I looked around and spotted pinecones littering the grass everywhere. I got an idea. I grabbed an empty box and a plastic bag from my car and set about gathering as many fallen pinecones from the tree shading his grave as I could carry. It eased my heart, feeling I could take something natural away from where he was. It was like a connection to the place. Even though I had to leave, we would still be close, kind of, because I could keep the pinecones with me. I put them in my car and it smelled like home. I finally drove away north.

For the next 90 minutes, I half-smiled and half-cried as I drove towards Chico; that particular route was the first road trip we had ever taken together, the very first time T and I had ever hung out, when I was 19 and he was 21. I played Incubus’ S.C.I.E.N.C.E. album, the tape he’d played on that trip, which was also the first time I’d ever heard them play. They’ve been my favorite band ever since and that album is still my favorite album. On September 9th it will turn 25 years old, also coinciding with National Suicide Prevention Week.

Columbia River, WA

I was intentional during my weeks in California and Washington about spending as much time as I could with family and old friends. I drove an hour and a half on two different occasions to have dinner with my longtime best friend K, as well as my friend R who I shockingly hadn’t seen in almost two decades. I visited K’s parents who I hadn’t seen since our wedding. I hung out in town with my friend J two different times. I hung out with my brother almost every night at my mom’s, and my niece came over most days after she finished school. I also made a nearly six-hour round trip in one day just to take my nana to brunch. Given that she is 93 years of age, I will do that any chance I get! It fed my soul to see people who really know me, in person. I didn’t wear a mask, and I didn’t care.

Spending time with my parents and Nana – I missed taking pictures with my stepmom and brother since they were hospitalized during part of my visit, and my niece is 12 so wasn’t as easy to catch as when she was little!

Underlying all of this was my intention to not just rely on texting or social media to tell me how people were doing. I made the effort – I called people and made plans, even if by the seat of my pants, and since then, I have done at least a little better at staying in touch. I don’t want to be disconnected from people. I don’t want to be a spectator in the lives of people I care about. And I don’t want people to follow my social media and think they’re in touch with me. I don’t want just the illusion of contact – I want more real, substantive contact. With visual cues, and everything! Like the old days. The good, and the bad.

Spent a lot of time with old California friends, who can always be counted on in good times and bad

I feel like the advent of social media made us all think we could use social media to be more connected to each other. And in the beginning, it did seem to work that way. Who remembers Bebo or MySpace taking the place of actual communication? They didn’t! Social media for the first time gave us a simple, easily accessible – and for early adopters of smartphones, handheld – peek into what our friends and family far away were doing that we wouldn’t have otherwise seen. It was awesome!

It wasn’t until Facebook and the emergence of a massive drive to perform all of this “social image-crafting” slowly but surely took hold in our collective cultural consciousness that we began curating our lives to the degree we do now as a means to “communicate.” In this way, communication began to mean “indirectly letting people know what is going on with us.”

Hence our loved ones increasingly become spectators in our lives rather than participants – if the relationship is relegated solely to social media platforms. And our friends just see what we broadcast – all too often, that still very much comes from a “good vibes only” place. My posts that are #bragworthy or look like #somuchwinning get a lot more engagement than my public service announcements about #firearmsuicideprevention or the new national #988 mental health crisis line, for example.

When did we allow all these digital updates to replace the kind of communication that makes us feel like we have friends who are truly there for us when we need someone? Many of us have been lulled into complacency about the need for actually talking (not texting and liking!) and the accompanying visual and cultural cues we get from face-to-face communication; those who grew up in the digital age may not even know any differently.

And what about people who have a social media profile but don’t really use it, like T? Not everyone utilizes social media to the same degree, or for the same reasons. His profile on Facebook to this day looks like he is still alive and living somewhere he hasn’t lived since 2019. It wasn’t until after he died I realized where he actually lived – about 10 minutes from my mom’s house, rather than 75 minutes away. Why? Because I thought Facebook should be the arbiter of telling me this, clearly.

Had I know that in 2019, or 2021 during my visits to the area, it’s more likely I would have looked him up. As lame as that is, because I suck at using a phone for, you know, actual telephoning. (He would find this ironic since when we were dating long-distance in the year 2000, I used to nag him to call me a lot; he would claim ‘phone ear’ 10-15 minutes into the conversation and beg off.) Did he ever look at my profile to see what I was up to? In 2017 he did, commenting on and liking posts. Outside of that, I have no idea. I kind of doubt it. I tend to assume my Facebook friends passively consume my updates, but many times when I talk to people I realize they don’t follow things as closely as they could if they had nothing but time. Or good algorithms.

The end result sure feels like a lot of ‘friends’, but precious few people to read your mind or depend on when times are hard. I think social media is slowly disconnecting us all.

* * *

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Sarah W Gaer

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