Social Media, Blogs, and Death

Over the last few weeks my aunt has been sharing a blog on her Facebook page about a family with a newborn that was very ill. His name was Michael. He had a host of problems at birth, and each week or sometimes more often, his mom would write an update about his progress or his setbacks, what the next steps were, and the prayers that they needed for their family. I read all of the posts that my aunt shared, prayed for this child and this family, and somewhere along the way became emotionally invested in this family’s story.

I knew that Michael had a big day on Friday and that his parents were praying for a good outcome. It would be a step in the direction of having this little boy able to begin the process of healing rather than suffering. I prayed for him that morning, thought of him during the day, and went about my work. Michael had never been off of a machine to help him survive since birth. His mother couldn’t actually hold him. I hoped he would have some relief that day during the procedure and that this family would be able to see progress in their tiny son’s health.

On Saturday morning I reached for my phone and opened Facebook to find that Michael had died swiftly and painlessly the day before. I sat for a long time looking at that post by my aunt before putting my phone down and trying to start my day with some sense of normalcy, but I felt horrible. In the afternoon I went Christmas shopping by myself, and when I was about a mile from the house I started crying. The road became blurry, and I gave in to the tears.

I didn’t feel like I could cry at home about this. How do you tell the person you live with that you’re grieving for someone you didn’t know? I felt so strange. I knew that Michael was no longer hurting, and that death might have been the best way for that to happen. Based on his mom’s writing he would have had a life of surgeries and pain. No one wants that for their child, but they still want the child and the hope of well being for that child.

When David Bowie died I remember my roommate coming out of her bedroom crying the morning that it was in the news. I felt sorry for her, because I remember being very affected by Princess Diana’s death years ago. With a celebrity I could get it and not feel odd about being so sad. Their lives were always so public and they were always in the news, on TV, on magazine covers. But I still came back to the fact that I didn’t know this family except through social media.

Social media and blogs bring people together that would otherwise never know about each other. While I don’t care at all about what someone on Instagram wore on a specific day, I do care when they share something more personal. A feeling. A story. Why something matters to them. And I suppose that because of this constant sharing, grieving is now a public thing too. (Something Grace pointed out to me.) I thought back to times when people grieved as a nation over Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King, Jr., or as a city recently when the Pulse shooting took place here in Orlando. I still can’t visit the part of the local cemetery where the victims are buried, even though I’ve been several times. I can’t think about it. I didn’t know any of those people either, but I finally gave myself a break over feeling so much emotion around that incident after talking to a friend and having her tell me she couldn’t go either, and that it upset her greatly to even think about going. I know that if I went no one would say anything to me if they saw me in the cemetery crying. So why did I feel so strange and so secretive about crying for a child I didn’t know? I honestly think I just didn’t want to explain that particular kind of sadness to anyone.

My friend and I are considering going to visit the Pulse victims at the cemetery this year, together. Maybe nobody owes the world or anyone an explanation of their sadness or despair. Maybe that’s what I haven’t learned yet. I can just be sad. I don’t have to explain it or rationalize it, or act like it’s not there.

I am grateful to Michael’s mom for putting their story out there for the world to see. I think it was a brave thing to do and I know it was hard to write. I hope her writing about Michael brings her healing and peace.

The photos in this post are of my favorite infant’s graves that I’ve visited in the last 2 years. The first photo, Billy, is from Greenwood Cemetery in Orlando and is one of my all time favorites.

St. John’s Episcopal Church Cemetery, Richmond

I was going to pass on posting this week in the aftermath of the Orlando mass shooting last weekend. The place where I have lived and worked for the last 16 years has suddenly become a place where I feel afraid to live and work, but I understand that these things take time to process and that there will be a day when the people of Orlando feel safe again, and feel like they’re at home. One thing that I do know from my own experience with violence is that it changes so many lives so rapidly. People who witness something like this are never the same again. The positive point here is that the good people of Orlando poured forth their love, time, and money to make this a gentler transition- if such a thing exists- for those involved.

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I decided to write this week about the last place where I felt completely comfortable and happy (no, I am not writing about my own bed). That place was the St. John’s Episcopal Church Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia on a rainy morning a couple of weeks ago. The wall that surrounds this beautiful space is actually so pretty that Caroline and I walked the entire city block, just to check it all out. Part of the wall on one side of the cemetery had been reinforced with metal bars to keep the wall from giving way- but it was holding its own and I was grateful to see that this place is cherished. The church dates from 1741 and since we were there on a Sunday, we did not go in because they were holding services. We did get to hear the bells ringing, and that in itself was magical.

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The cemetery ended up on our radar when we visited the Poe Museum (which was amazing!) and found out that Edgar Allan Poe’s mother was buried here. We had expected a modest stone, but there was actually a very large monument erected to her with a medallion in the center of a beautiful woman holding a raven. It was a fitting tribute to Elizabeth Arnold Poe, 1787-1811. In front of it was a blooming magnolia tree that perfumed the air with its lemony scent. The stones all around us were extremely old and many dated back to the late 1700’s, and sadly, many others could not be read. The church and historians had made valiant preservation efforts, everything from leaving headstones in the pathways through the churchyard to leaving them erected where they were and building around them. I literally looked down and found that I was standing on a grave- even though I was on the path. It’s not my normal practice to purposely stand on graves, I usually try to read headstones from the side to avoid standing on someone and potentially sinking into soft soil.

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Caroline said, “How do you feel about that? About what they’ve done here?” She indicated the gravestone.

“I’m just glad they left the headstone where it was. I don’t care if they bricked it in- at least that way it’s protected,” I answered. I thought of Colonial Park Cemetery in Savannah with it’s wall of headstones that have been affixed to the bricks at the back of the cemetery. It’s overwhelming, but makes for a great hour of reading and strolling. In that case I was glad they still had the stones, but wished they could have been left in place. I understand that it’s not always possible.

St. John’s is especially famous for the speech that Patrick Henry delivered here with the famous words, “Give me liberty or give me death!” There is also a signer of the Declaration of Independence buried here, George Wythe, 1726-1806.

Caroline and I split up and looked around on our own for awhile and since we had been doing so much walking and I found a place to rest, I decided to sit down to wait for her to catch up. I sat on a step and leaned back for a moment, my hands splayed behind me on the brick, picking up their warmth. I turned and looked, and I realized that I was sitting right next to a large headstone that could still be read.

Ann Carty Alison Wife of Fr. Alison who departed this life April 18, 1793, aged 35 years
She was a kind and loving wife and tender parent and a good Christian.

About 223 years before a group of mourners had gathered in this spot to lay her to rest. They stood where I was sitting, looking down into the grave. I sat there for awhile, looking at the headstone, wondering what she was like and how she died. What horrors did she witness in her lifetime? What beauty?

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After 49 people died senselessly in my hometown this week, I go back to Patrick Henry’s words for courage.

“Besides sir, we shall not fight our battles alone. There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations; and who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us.”

If you or anyone you know was affected by the shooting in Orlando, you have my deepest sympathy. I’m thinking today that I can walk into any cemetery and be mostly fine, but I can’t bring myself to go to the victim’s memorial downtown.