This week Mike and I have been talking about what constitutes a ‘relationship’ in this new world of the internet, this world that sometimes seems so very small. Is there such a thing as ‘Friendship’ when one has never met the friend in person? How can our hearts be touched in a personal way by people we have met only through the graces of social media or over email? This is new in human experience. We are all the pioneers in this era of connecting with people solely through the world wide web of energy known as the internet. After this week, Mike and I know that these connections are real, if different, and that they can break our hearts just as surely as if the people involved lived next door to us.
This week my friend Cidnie (Our Life with Ceol Mor), and her husband Mark, lost their precious little girl, Kitty, at age 5. Even as I type this I cannot believe it to be true. How could it possibly be true? How could such a vivacious, precocious, sassy, smart little girl be gone from this world in the blink of an eye? How could my friend be living every parent’s worst nightmare? Kitty fell into the water at the dock by their boat and slipped away before anyone could find her.
Mike and I were both as stunned by our visceral reactions to this loss as we were to the news of her death. Shocked to the core, we were both enveloped with overwhelming sadness; a dense fog that has yet to be cleared. We went through the day on auto-pilot. I got lost driving to work. Mike came home looking tired and tearful. Kitty was on our minds and hearts all day and still is. Kitty was not our child. We know Mark and Cidnie Carroll only through our blog and Facebook presence. But we felt as though we had lost something precious and dear in our lives.
I know we are not the only ones. On the Women Who Sail Facebook page (which is closed to new members at the moment) where Cidnie is one of the administrators, thousands of women all over the world share the grief. People set up a go-fund-me site, which seems to be the modern day equivalent to neighbors bringing food and taking care of chores where a family can grieve with support. I know we are not supposed to equate money with love, but in this new era of friendships where we live far apart, money is physical energy that represents our most fervent feelings sometimes. It gives people a tangible way to say that they care, that they are suffering along with others. Donations to this fund will allow Cidnie and Mark to continue paying their bills, which don’t stop just because a child has died, while they piece their lives back together. People are keeping their anchor lights on in her honor. Candles are burning all over the world in her memory. Children blew bubbles today at a specific time, wearing pink; Kitty’s favorite color. It is a touching display of human kindness on a deeply personal level. Most of these women have never met Cidnie in person, much less met Kitty. But many are grieving deeply, even so.
Mike and I have been talking much about why we are having such a truly emotional reaction. Is it really about Kitty? Or is it about some other grief we are holding that has yet to be resolved? The sad truth is that little children die every day. We can read about it in the news, we might comment on how sad the parents must be and make noises about how we don’t know how they will ‘go on’, but we quickly move on to other things in our lives because we don’t know those people and the world is full of sadness every day. If we felt this way for each child who died, we would never be able to function in the world. What makes this child different to us? We begin to examine ourselves.
Mike remembers a little girl next door to us when we were first married. She died because she had phlegm that could not be cleared. We did CPR on her until the medics arrived, but she died anyhow. He still holds that memory and it is painful for him. For me, that was terribly sad but I do not feel the same way about it that he does. I saw that child, I touched that child, but I did not know that child or her parents.
Then, of course, we are parents of a child who had a tragic accident, in spite of the fact that we are good parents. All tragedy involving children triggers us back to that day. We know the guilt that parents feel when their beloved child is badly hurt. We know the ‘what if’s’ and ‘why didn’t I’ thoughts that beat a continuous tattoo through the mind. We know how it feels for people to judge us as parents because of his accident. Time never erases that wound, but it does make it easier to bear and to put in perspective. And we have done that. Our son is a strapping young man now and while he has his own burdens to bear because of his accident, he survived it and you can’t tell by looking at him that anything ever happened. We are grateful for that. That particular flavor of grief appears in my body in brief, intense flashes of pain now. I recognize it, I know it well. It’s there, but it isn’t sustained for long. No, I’m pretty sure that’s a different grief than what I am feeling. I cannot speak for Mike on this one.
I am forced to go back to Facebook and blog ‘friendships’ and see if I can make sense of things. I don’t remember who found whose blog first, but Cidnie and I followed each other’s blogs, became ‘friends’ on Facebook, and then I think it was she who invited me to join Women Who Sail back when there were about 500 women in the group. Over the years we had personal conversations about sailing, boats, Scotland (Mark’s native land), and kids. I loved her blog. Her writing is entertaining, her photographs stunning. They, too, were preparing a boat for long distance cruising. I feel a connection with her, even though we live far apart and our children are of different ages.
But it was when I made friends with her on Facebook that I got to ‘know’ Kitty. I looked forward every day to my daily dose of Kitty on Facebook. Her cheerful, saucy little face, her sweet little songs, her love of playing dressup, her complete ‘attitude’, how she loved to work with tools with her dad. She reminded me so very much of our Claire when she was little; filled with life and spirit. Lots of people I know post photos and stories about their kids on Facebook. They are entertaining sometimes, but not the same. No. There are many beautiful children in this world.
But I had a special place in my heart for Kitty in some intangible way. I looked forward to meeting her in person some day. Each morning I would sit down with my coffee to check things out on Facebook and see what the world was up to, hoping Cidnie would have posted something starring my favorite four year old. I would share these posts with Mike and we would both dote on her from afar. In this everyday, mundane way, Kitty worked herself into my heart.
Our hearts are broken for the loss of this beautiful child and for the grief, no, devastation that her parents are experiencing. We are forced to reckon with the fact that the friendships we form online are real, even if different from friendships we have with people who live close to us. We are forced to acknowledge that being on-line friends will not insulate us from feeling grief when there is suffering, nor joy when there is happiness. We should keep this reality in mind as we make comments, write blog posts, and post updates on Facebook. We bring ourselves to the community of the internet just as we bring ourselves to the communities in which we live and work. The people we connect with online are real, our relationships with them true. Our hearts have just told us so.