Laura was my friend in high school, but until we became Facebook friends, I hadn’t seen or spoken to her in fifteen years. When I heard, via Facebook, that Laura had died, I wasn’t surprised. Yet it stayed with me for weeks; she started appearing in my dreams.
Laura was an eccentric friend. Big and loud, she had a knack for saying the most awkward possible thing with a deliberate grin and a hearty laugh. She was hilarious and generous. She attracted misfits of all kinds. When our friend Kevin underwent a long hospitalization, Laura was the one who shuttled us all back and forth to visit him, even though most of us had licenses and cars of our own. She was a caretaker, and if a ride to the hospital with her meant that a random socially-outcast gay freshman boy was going to tag along and swipe rubber gloves while we were there, it was worth it to have her making Kevin laugh despite the tubes in his nose and arms.
Though I hadn’t seen her since high school, another friend had. She reported that Laura had lost a shocking amount of weight, that she seemed unusually quiet and deferential to her boyfriend, that she appeared “shrunken” and that the whole experience was depressing and weird.
Laura was quiet on Facebook too; she had moved across the country, married that boyfriend, and had children. Most of her infrequent posts seemed to be about a business they were running together. Then, suddenly, about six months ago, she began to post more frequently, and the tenor of the posts changed. They vacillated between urgent and morose. She appeared to have moved, and referred to a head injury, the death of a beloved pet and spending the holidays alone. She posted cryptic cries for help like “I just don’t think I can do this anymore.” Several of us from high school responded to these posts, some with words of encouragement, others with offers of phone calls or visits.
It felt strange reaching out to someone in a way both intimate and detached–since social media both connects and isolates us–but I just couldn’t ignore her posts. It seemed like most of the commenters were people I knew from back home–those who, like me, hadn’t had any real-life contact with Laura for years. I wondered and worried about her, but she didn’t respond to any of the comments, except to say that she appreciated the offers to visit, but that she “couldn’t leave [her] babies.” Then nothing. I discussed it with another poster: how do you support someone this way?
A month after her last post, the obituary appeared, along with a photo of Laura on her wedding day. She did look so much smaller than I remembered her, smiling a bit manically at the camera, like someone unsure of how she got there. I messaged another high school friend: what happened? “No idea,” she said, “but I’m not surprised.”
This morning, one of my best friends from childhood posted to Facebook using the new “feelings” descriptors; she was feeling “hopeless” and wrote “Not much else to say.” Earlier in the month she had written things like “This has got to get easier” and “Today is a hard one.” Her third child is less than a year old, not sleeping. She’s struggling. We had met for dinner recently and talked, away from the kids, and she seemed better. But this morning I reached out via text: we’re only 45 minutes apart, I could be there right after work. She told me she’s seeing her doctor today, and I was so relieved, so grateful that she could identify the need and take steps to meet it, to care for herself.
I wasn’t able to help Laura. Maybe it was unreasonable to expect that I could have. Without Facebook, I never would have known she was depressed, maybe wouldn’t even have known about her death for quite some time, if ever. But I’m thinking today about how even with my very good friend, months go by and we don’t see each other. We don’t talk on the phone or text much. Without Facebook, how would I have known she was sinking?
Much has been written about how people’s “Facebook lives” don’t reflect reality. The way people use the app to brag, show off, or create a wishful version of themselves. And there are also those whose cryptic complaining seems incessant, attention-seeking, or immature. But everyone on social media is calling out for human connection. For validation, recognition, someone to see us. For our cries for help to be heard.