The author in 2023.
When I suddenly lost my new partner, affectionately known by most people as Blacksmith Paul, eight months into a relationship in 2016, there was no word to describe my loss. I felt marooned on an island of grief shared by no one, clutching our joint history like a broken raft with no hope of being rescued. I wrote extensively about that relationship in the hope of making sense of my experience of loving someone so deeply and losing them so abruptly so early in a relationship.
My bereavement counselor called it disenfranchised grief ― a unique and deeply felt loss that didn’t fit into the neat parameters reserved for spouses, longtime friends or family members. It was a lonely feeling to be the only person grieving him in that specific way. A strange kind of loss. But not as strange, perhaps, as more recent losses.
This week, for the second time in as many years, I discovered from social media that someone close to me had died. There’s a particular horror to finding out via Facebook or Instagram that someone important to you has vanished. One minute you’re blithely scrolling through pictures of cats, vacation snaps and weight loss supplements, and the next you’re floored by a public announcement that someone you care for is gone.
You’d think the people sharing the news would be more thoughtful, but it’s not their fault. They will have done their best to contact friends directly but, for me, I knew all about the family and friends of the deceased, but their relatives most likely knew nothing about me. I was never invited to parties or reunions because my friendship with their loved ones were relatively new and conducted entirely in private and mostly online. We existed only in invisible spaces ― spaces that are painfully empty now.
Both my friends were men I met on Tinder. I was never interested romantically in the first of them, but we proceeded quickly to friendship. We shared interests and lived around the corner from each other. We met a few times for coffee and, being single parents, we checked in often during lockdown to keep each other company at the end of long and lonely days.
Freed from the possibility of romance, we were able to share the best and the worst of ourselves online. We knew the intimate details of each other’s daily lives. I even knew about his health worries, which, I now know, were not unfounded. I may well have been the last person he spoke to before the green light next to his name went out for good last year.
The one I lost recently ticked all my boxes at first, and our online connection fizzed with potential. Long-distance wordsmiths, we shared our hopes and dreams, and by the time we met for our first date, we felt ourselves to be well on the way to falling in love. We spent one special day together, but gradually he realized his limitations and the fizz in our remote romance fizzled out.
Still, with some renegotiation of boundaries, over time we became firm friends. We spoke regularly, sharing our histories and our ups and downs, our past loves and our new romantic hopes. We talked intimately about our inner worlds, liberated perhaps by the fact that we didn’t need to look each other in the eye as we talked. We played Scrabble, connected daily by the placing of tiles on an online grid. Until one day the words stopped coming.
I knew he’d had a recent breakup. I thought he might just need some time. I only really became worried when my last WhatsApp message went undelivered, but I reassured myself that it was truly unlikely to have happened again. Until I saw the post about his passing on Instagram, and the waves of shock and grief rippled through my body once more.
I have messaged his daughter now ― the one I knew all about, though she’d never heard of me. She kindly invited me to the funeral, but it’s a long way to travel, and, though I would recognize names and faces and would smile as people recounted his stories, there is no one there who knows me.
However well I knew him, I would feel awkward and out of place with the real-life friends and close family he has left behind. I can’t quite bring myself to tell them that I am grieving an unsuccessful Tinder date. I can watch the live-stream of the service from my laptop instead and remain at a distance. Perhaps it’s fitting to send him off online.
The Scrabble game remains incomplete. For a while the screen showed the familiar words “It’s their move,” then the game expired, and when I click on his name now, the screen tells me Granty B hasn’t played recently. He won’t play again, and I will deeply miss the words I shared with my online friend. The other words we shared are still stored on my phone, one long conversation now complete, the entirety of a relationship encrypted end-to-end for eternity.
An online Scrabble match the author played with her now deceased friend.
“There are no words,” people often say when they talk about grief, and sometimes it is true. There is no word yet for the loss I have experienced. Perhaps it is time for us as a society to invent one? Online losses are surely increasing, and the gaps they leave are sometimes gaping chasms in our lives.
There is no hierarchy in grief, and the impact of what can seem like insignificant relationships can be vast. I remember my bereavement counselor telling me that she once counseled a woman without family or close friends who was devastated at the loss of the co-worker with whom she shared her lunch break.
For someone else, the death of a co-worker might be briefly sad or mildly disruptive, but for this woman, the loss was enormous. How huge then the disappearance of an online friend whom we might speak to daily ― whose hopes and dreams we carry with us ― once they’ve gone?
I feel the absence of my friends deeply. Strange to realize now that I spoke to them more often than most of the friends I’ve known for decades. Those friends I might meet up with once or twice a year. We check in occasionally online and book times periodically for phone calls, but we do not share our daily existence in the way I did with these online men. There is an interruption to my routine. Like the woman who lost her lunchtime companion, there are gaps in my day that were filled with their presence.
These days, friendships and relationships come in all shapes and sizes. People go out less and connect more online ― especially in the wake of the pandemic. I only have to go back to those Tinder profiles to realize the multiple forms that even romantic relationships take these days: Men say they are looking for “friends with benefits,” “something casual,” “more than a fling but less than marriage.” Given how many men have “not looking for just a pen pal” on their profile, it’s clear that online relationships make up a large proportion of connections in the dating world.
Dating isn’t the only way that people connect online. There are Discord groups for almost any niche interest and online communities in which people openly share the details of their mental health or their issues with real-world family life to relative strangers who, over time, can become primary support networks. Even the angry voices shouting about garden fires on neighborhood Facebook communities can start to feel like people we know.
So where does it leave us? We can’t go to the funeral of every person with whom we shared sandwiches or Scrabble games or thoughts, but these relationships need to be honored in some way. What ritual can we perform to express our loss of relationships that existed only in online spaces ― ephemeral in their very nature but so deeply felt?
We shouldn’t feel silly for mourning someone, even if it’s someone that we never met. We shared a connection, and that connection has been severed. It needs to be grieved in some way. Perhaps the key will ultimately be found in online spaces, in Google grief hangouts or Slack space huddles, places in which online friends can share their stories and memories with each other outside of the real-life funeral.
In the meantime, perhaps that’s why I write, to let the world know that I am sad and that this man and our connection mattered to me. Perhaps bringing our relationship out into the open is a way to make it real. Perhaps sharing the story here, in this way, makes sense as we knew each other primarily in the digital world.
Though the connection between my friend and I was virtual, my grief is real and I feel marooned again, carrying more pieces of shared history on my island of disenfranchised grief. But perhaps the knowledge that there must be many people in the same situation can offer me some consolation. Together we are an archipelago of grief islands connected by loss. Perhaps by sharing our stories, we might be able to make a raft. We are in the same boat after all.
Beverley Ward is a writer, facilitator, consultant and writing coach, and is the owner and founder ofThe Writers Workshop. Beverley is the author of three books: “Archie Nolan: Family Detective,” “Dear Blacksmith: A Journey of Love and Loss” and “Writing Revolution: Tips and Ideas for Young Writers.” She lives in Sheffield, England, and runs a range of workshops for adults and children from The Writers Workshop and beyond.