When 'Instagram friends' die

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

I wake, bleary-eyed, to see my friend Anya, all over my Facebook feed. Hers is a contagious smile, broad and beaming and my first thought is simply that she must have been out at an event. She's an avid social media user, her accounts full of love and language and life.

As I scroll down, however, I see that the photos have been snapped at different times, posted by a number of different people. It takes me a few minutes to work out why. 

My heart plummets.

Overnight, news has broken that Anya died in hospital and the posts are all shocked tributes.

I sit down clutching my phone, clicking through her social media to find out what happened. An American poet Anya, who was just 49, was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was pregnant with her son in 2004. 

"My son, my roe deer, my rock rent stream, my honeysuckle, my salt, my golden spear," she wrote. "Forgive me your birth in this strange land. I wanted your infant caresses, your fists clasped around my neck. I craved you though you were born in the wake of my illness, my dim prognosis."

Five and a half years later the cancer returned. She had lived, ever since, as a self-described "Stage 4 cancer thriver".

An Instagram post shared by her husband notes that it was septic shock from sudden pneumonia that took her, far, far, too soon.

We are "friends" on Facebook, follow one another on Instagram and on Twitter, but we've never actually met. Why, then, do I feel this wave of sharp, unexpected grief?

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As it happens, I'm not alone.

Under her husband's post hundreds of people leave messages of condolence. Many write about being "Instagram friends" with Anya, how her posts and insight and wit brought them such joy.

"I knew Anya only here, in the hallways of Instagram," one person begins.

"Such a beautiful light in our Instagram world," adds another. 

And oh what a weird and wonderful world that can be.  

It's clear from the tributes that many of us feel bereft, unsure what to do with this grief that's fierce, but hard to articulate. We never spoke to Anya on the phone, never sat down over coffee or watched our kids on the swings in the playground. And yet … and yet…

The sadness feels real and raw. I sense the familiar shape of grief settling in my throat, the muddy lump of it. I find myself thinking back to my previous interactions with Anya, to red hearts sent in response to Instagram stories or simply writing the words "LOVE THIS" on poems, photos and reflections. It seems so insignificant in the grand scheme of things – these emoji, these comments, we attach to others' lives and the pieces of it they choose to share.

But it isn't. It isn't.

I wonder if the sadness, along with her death too soon, too young, is the realisation that I'll never meet her. The "someday, one day, wouldn't it be nice to have coffee" is no longer a possibility - no matter how small that possibility might have been, when a person lives on the other side of the globe.

And there's such grief in that, too.

It's a different feeling to the loss of a celebrity. Who hasn't felt slightly at sea after the death of a famous person - someone we'd never met, but nevertheless had an attachment to, a fondness for. And while there will always be "grief police", when it comes to the way people mourn, particularly mass public grieving, there's more of an acceptance, a normalisation that celebrity deaths can be felt keenly, too.

This loss, however, feels far more intimate.

Mental health professionals behind the site What's Your Grief, call it "cybergrief", or "disenfranchised grief".

"Just like grief is our natural reaction to loss, cybergrief is the natural reaction to cyberloss," they write. "The grief of any loss is unique to the person grieving and their relationship to the person who died. In some cases, the relationship you had was an entirely online relationship. That may impact the form and shape of the grief but it certainly does not change that it is, in fact, grief." 

In other words, if it feels real, it is real - and it should, must be, honoured as such.

I spend the afternoon thinking of Anya, looking back over our messages and reading of the way she touched the lives of so many others. She was the kind of person whose presence leapt off the screen. Transcendent. Vital. It's little wonder there are so many people, all around the world, nursing sore hearts.

Seized by urgency, I reach for my phone and type four words to another online friend who lives in Melbourne.

"We need to meet," I write.

I tell her about Anya and the strange, tender, sadness I feel.

"We live an hour away," I add. "We have no excuses."

"I agree," she writes back. "Let's make it happen."

And when we do Anya, I'll drink to you.