Tuesday, May 17, 2011

There's Nothing Virtual About Death

I found out a few days ago that a friend of mine died last month.

Here's where it gets interesting, but isn't all that unique any more - not in today's online and connected society.

I've known this friend for about 5 years, knew her under various names/nicknames as well as her real name. But we never met in person. We were blogger friends. We'd connected via a weekly blogging ritual called HNT (Half Nekkid Thursday) in which people would post photos of themselves, typically taken by themselves, and then visit the other folks who would post the same. The photos would run the spectrum from "nekkid" meaning simple self-exposure shots of a person in their daily lives, or perhaps a simple shot of the paper cut on their finger they got at work that day, a picture of themselves with a dear friend, all the way to racy and less interpretive shots of "nekkid." But, often, the "exposure" wasn't the removal of clothing, but a peek into a person's inner self, an exposure of them. That, in my mind, has been where phenomenal connections and friends have been made.

I made a lot of friends through HNT and blogging (I started blogging in March 2005), some of whom I've established personal connections with "off-blog" and some of whom I've even had the pleasure of eventually meeting in person.

I never met Melanie Elizabeth Phillpott VanWinkle (also known in the blogging community as Stealth Bombshell and Texas Spitfire - perhaps other nicknames) in person. But we connected via blogging, via photos, via comments and silly humorous exchanges, and connected with our real names, later, via Facebook.

So I never knew her in person, but I knew her just the same. She touched my life, she made me smile, made me laugh, made me cry, made me think. I am a richer person for having known Melanie, even in this limited virtual way. And I am mourning her loss, but at the same time, wanting to celebrate her life and the fact that I have gained simply by knowing her.

The joys of the virtual online world exist. You can connect and share and communicate with great people you'd otherwise not have the pleasure of meeting in person. And that experience can enrich your life - because that's what other people do; they enrich your life.

But here's the rub: when that person dies, particularly when there's no "physical world" interaction in which people close to them know you know one another, what is the result? What is the healing ritual?

Typically, death involves ritual, involves a chance for people to say goodbye, for some ritualized sense of closure (even if the pain of that loss never fades away). But in virtual death, what is the ritual, what is the manner by which we can share our appreciation for having known a person, our sense of loss, our grief?

There was a fascinating discussion of this on a recent episode of CBC Radio's Spark between host Nora Young and guest Adele McAlear. And discussions like this help when dealing with this virtual loss. But it's true that we need to figure out a way to handle this all to common situation. A good conversation to continue.

But back to Melanie.

I found out Melanie died through another online friend who has enriched my life but I've not met in person. Osbasso recently posted a tribute to Melanie on his blog - the blog, whose weekly ritual connected Melanie and I, and thousands of other people together.

How do I properly grieve, other than post one of my favourite pictures of her and say something about her?

Thank you, Melanie - thanks for connecting, and thanks for enriching my life. May you rest in peace. May your dear friends and family find peace and comfort in all of the memories you gave them. And thank you for touching my life - there was nothing virtual about the way you enriched my life.

Melanie Elizabeth Phillpott VanWinkle
March 20, 1978 - April 12, 2011


lecram said...

Eloquent and moving, Mark. I too am going to miss that wacky girl.

Adele McAlear said...

It's true that we are at a point in our culture where there are no traditions to turn to when mourning the passing of a friend in the digital world. When you consider that it's only been 20 years that people have been creating relationships on the Internet, and only 7 since it became mainstream, there is a long way to go to adapt the millennia of death rituals to this new world. I'm very sorry for your loss, Mark.

Anonymous said...

This is a beautiful tribute to Melanie. I wish she knew how many lives she touched in a positive way. She struggled so in her life and I think, felt devalued, maybeing knowing would have made a difference. Maybe not. I just know that the friends I have developed online, are as much real friends as anyone I have in my everyday life, they have helped me thru some difficult stuff and celebrated with me when things were going well. And always when there was heartbreak or triumph Melanie was one of the friends who let you know she cared.
Very nice tribute Mark. Now we grieve the way we would for any friend, we remember them with some happy memories and some pain.

Blondage said...

That is my favorite picture of Mel too. Every time I complimented her pics she'd tell me it was just photo shop or whatever. Can you believe??? She had no clue how beautiful she was.

You brought up the topic of how to grieve for someone you never met in r/l but knew so well here? This is the third time it has happened to someone I loved here, and honestly, it doesn't feel much different from a r/l friend. You go through the same stages of grief, but if you try to tell a r/l friend about it they look at you like you've lost your marbles. It sucks on a million different levels....

Thank you for sharing your thoughts Mark. Beautifully done.

GrrlTragic said...

I miss the old crew, you included. I think of "Stealth" often. I hope she made it to a safer place. Wonderful post, Mark. Be well yourself. Life is too short.

S said...

Thank you for remembering Melanie. I will never forget the positive energy and smiles she always brought to me. i would like to think thatwith me she felt safe enough to shine.
Rest well, dear one.