Last week I attended an awards ceremony where one of my writer friends was being honored.
Hearing her good news had thrilled me to no end. I, of course, planned to be there but delighted beforehand in finding the perfect card to send her, sharing a few personal thoughts and accolades. In this day of keyboards and touch screens, it's still nice to get a hand addressed note in the mail from time to time.
During the reception, she was deluged by well-wishers but caught my eye and rushed over to thank me for sending the card. And then she whispered that although she had received numerous calls and e-mails, mine was the only hand-written note. Hearing this was a bit disheartening, both of us being writers and all.
Call me old-fashioned, but I stubbornly hang on to the practice of buying cards, putting pen to paper, sometimes even hunting down just the right stamp before addressing the envelope and walking it to my mailbox.
The timing of this episode coincided with the tragic passing of Robin Williams, whose sudden departure left all of us feeling empty and breathless. Within minutes of hearing the breaking news, hundreds of Facebook posts, Twitter condolences, photo collages and hashtag messages were shared through social media. It felt ... how do I say this: "icky."
The digital platform seemed horribly impersonal and intrusive — disrespectful in its abundance and repetition. Granted, it was a love fest to honor his genius, but it came across like too much, too soon. A friend of mine calls it "speed grieving." It was as if there was a race on to see who could share the best quote, the funniest one-liner, the most outrageous movie clip.
Rarely at a loss for words, I fell silent. The one-click condolence wasn't doing much for me.
Tempted to rant, I logged off, powered down instead. I contemplated renting "Mrs. Doubtfire" or "Birdcage," two of my personal favorite Robin Williams films, but couldn't even manage that. The world had just lost one of its most brilliant and talented artists. The hurricane of digital grieving really got to me — and then got me thinking about social media etiquette.
Birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, job promotions and first day of school posts generally are enjoyed by all. But what has grief become in this new age of social media?
Etiquette surrounding death is delicate, sensitive and highly subjective. What one person views as good judgment easily translates as incredibly poor taste or downright offensive to others. It can sometimes transform death into a sort of public spectacle, which can then cross a line. Like when elaborate descriptions show up about how someone has died. Our fingers, it seems, go on a rampage.
Thinking before posting might help.
I guess what I'm saying here is that there are times when picking up the phone, writing a note, showing up in person trumps the quick impulsive "click" or "like." This is especially true during times of tragedy and grief. What soothes the heart most is a human touch. Which leads me to the bookend part of this column.
Last Friday I met three friends for lunch at The Golden. It's something we've been doing for years now. We're all insanely busy but staying in touch, getting together in person, remain a top priority despite some rather challenging life circumstances. We do it anyway.
During the get together, our conversation morphed from family and grandchildren to health and travels. From there we quite naturally shared our personal sorrow for the passing of Robin Williams, exchanging many of the same thoughts and sentiments being posted on Facebook and Twitter. But with the benefit of fierce eye contact. Deep sighs. Hands touching hands.
To that end, we paid homage to a beloved celebrity without marginalizing the humanity of it all. It's normal to grieve together, to share stories. And in doing so, we also acknowledged our own mortality — the precious and fragile nature of our own lives.
Before leaving, we made a pact to meet more often. Williams' sudden death reminded us all that we never know what tomorrow might bring. We are at a stage in life where we need each other more now. Our life stories are complex, more layered.
It's dangerous to mistake Facebook or Twitter for intimacy. There are losses that hurt a lot but don't send us into existential despair. Robin Williams' death was jolting, unexpected. People are reeling and need a grace period to absorb the shock. How do you sum up a man's life in 140 characters? The answer is — you don't.