Here's the Thing...

Musings on the sacred and the mundane.

Rosemary Picado

Rosemary Picado
San Francisco, California, USA
October 13
Technical Writer
Rosemary Picado has written for the San Jose Mercury News, Budget Savvy, and City ReVolt magazine. She currently works as a technical writer.

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AUGUST 16, 2010 2:32PM

News of a Friend’s Death via Facebook

Rate: 22 Flag


My last visit with Leslie, in Burbank, August 2009.

It was a Tuesday afternoon. I was at work. After a long meeting with my team, I returned to my desk in our open fishbowl office and stole a moment to check my Facebook page, as I do a couple times a day. Some would say it’s due to that “fear of missing out” but I just call it a break. We’re still allowed to take those, you know.

Nestled down the page in a list of Facebook messages full of friend’s newly uploaded pictures and status messages, acquaintances’ game gift requests, and links to news stories, I saw a headline that made me catch my breath:

On Monday, August 9, 2010, Leslie Shevick Raymond passed away due to complications from pneumonia.


I read it again. Then again.

The words didn’t make sense. I was puzzling out strange hieroglyphs, until suddenly the letters rearranged themselves so that I rationally understood what I didn’t want to know. A flash of heat went through my body and I started to sweat. Then, there in front of everyone in my office, the tears came. Big ugly sobs. I tried to stop them, but I couldn’t.

Leslie, my best friend from college, was gone.

But we just emailed last week! She was getting better!

Before anyone noticed, or before they stopped being polite in pretending not to notice, I snatched a handful of tissues from the box and rushed for the door. Down the elevator and outside on Pacific Street, my mind started rationalizing the fact that I just learned that a close friend had died -- on Facebook.

“What a shitty way to learn someone’s died!” I sobbed.

But then again, I reasoned, how else would I have known so quickly? Maybe it wasn’t such a bad way. I just wish I hadn’t been at work. Unfortunately, we can’t choose how these moments go, the ones that affect our lives so deeply.

I tried to scrub the ruined mascara from my face and went back upstairs. I packed my laptop, and explained to one compassionate co-worker on the way out what had happened. I’d be no good to anyone for the rest of the afternoon. And I needed a drink.

Leslie and I met at the flower shop where we worked in college. SJSU wasn’t like an archetypal college experience, not for us anyway. In the middle of Silicon Valley, it was a school for people who also had jobs. I was putting myself through school, and even with her parents help, Leslie was working hard too. With her flaming red hair, brilliant smile and kooky sense of humor, we bonded instantly. We were both Libras, our birthdays only days apart, even though she was a year younger. We both loved REM. We both loved TV and movies and we were both writers. She was juggling ever changing majors, Journalism and English, though she hoped to go into television production. I was the steadfast and boring English major with a punk rock haircut and Goth eyeliner. But we had our eyes on the prize -- getting out of school in one piece and making something of our lives.

Along the way, we had so many great times being part of the dysfunctional family that was that flower shop. Working long hours, especially around Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day; delivering bouquets to offices and hospitals and funeral homes in the rain or in the summer heat; talking to people in the shop and on the phone, some who wanted things just perfect, some who wanted their roses painted black. We arranged flowers and deliveries to celebrate new babies, birthdays, elaborate weddings and funerals. And always now, now, today! It was exhausting and exhilarating. We loved it, both deadline junkies and at home with chaos.

In our time off, we studied together, shopped, ate lots of ice cream, and just hung out. My most vivid memory of Leslie is riding in her car with REM blasting, singing along at the top of our lungs. That’s a true friend.

As we got closer to graduation, I needed to move out on my own. I found a job closer to my new apartment, one that paid better too, so I left the flower shop. Leslie and I still hung out, but soon she was off to Hollywood to start her career, while I stayed in the Silicon Valley at my first tech job. We lost contact, but Leslie would always be a partner in crime, someone I admired and loved. Her mind was like a laser beam and her heart was like a big feather pillow. I never knew someone who was at once so strong and so compassionate.

Over the years, especially as the internet exploded, we kept in touch with each other’s accomplishments and emailed occasionally, but never visited. Ten years went by, and then Facebook became a fixure of all of our lives. Leslie and I found each other, and even though it was only pixels that connected us, we felt like part of each other’s lives again, getting those daily status messages, seeing each other’s photos and sharing links to things that we both liked. I had married young and divorced, but found a new boyfriend. She had waited and found the perfect guy. They had two kids together.

I called Facebook my time machine - a device that allowed me to keep in touch with friends from every epoch of my life, from grade school to the present. It was great for poeple with busy lives.

We finally visited down in LA, meeting for drinks and dinner. Leslie got to meet my boyfriend, but I didn’t get to meet her family. She was on her way home from work, and he was watching the kids so she could have a night out. I wished I’d had more time on that trip to hang out. It had been years since we’d seen each other, but it felt like no time had gone by at all. The connection to a true friend is timeless.

A year later, she was gone.

I’m so glad I got to see Leslie that one last time. I can’t imagine how devastated I would have been if I hadn’t bothered to make the effort. It gives me chills thinking about it.

Always the media critic, I can just hear Leslie’s best radio announcer voice asking, “So Rosemary, what do you think of Facebook as an obituatry delivery device?”

I need to give Facebook a mixed review, Leslie. You definitely get the news in a timely manner, which is vital when you need to make travel plans, but in an environment that is mostly populated with silly videos and jokes, it’s an inelegant device at best for such shocking and life changing news.

But when would I have found out otherwise? I may have been in Leslie’s contact list on her phone. I don’t know. She was in mine. Would her devastated husband have the time to go through the list? Facebook seems like it’s easier on the family in delivering the news, and in such a time, anything that makes it easier on those who survive us is really the way to go.

My boyfriend feels differently. When he got home from work that Tuesday night, I didn’t even have time to bring the question up. He told me where his rolodex was, so that if anything were to happen to him, I’d know who to call. It’s a chilling thought, but one we all need to think about and plan for. Just to make it easier on those we leave behind.

I flew down to Burbank on Friday. Leslie’s memorial was Saturday. I met her husband for the first time in the reception line. I recognized her children from the innumerable pictures Leslie had posted. I was almost thankful that they were so young. They seemed excited to see everyone, unable to understand the magnitude of the occasion.

The family printed out many of the messages left on her Facebook profile, and posted them on a pretty pink poster board montage of text and pictures. The list of messages was long, the sentiments shocked and heartfelt. It was proof that my friend was loved beyond the many people who were able to come to the service. It made me feel better about the Facebook connection.  

We can’t choose the way we learn about a friend’s death. We never could. As social media becomes more entangled in our daily lives, more and more of us will be having this same experience. I think the important thing is that we get the news in a timely fashion, so we can do what we need to do to honor our lost loved ones and help those they leave behind.

But I think it might be a while before this knot in my stomach goes away when I check my Facebook page at work.

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Rosemary, I don't really know what to say about this piece except that it's excellent. I know you're not looking for such things as literary accolades, but it's very good. Rated. Please stay well and I'm sorry for the loss of Leslie.
Sorry to hear about this. I'm not sure I'd want to find out something like this through Facebook. Or any way for that matter, now that I think about it. rated
I had a real scare a few months back. An old friend of mine has been intermittently suicidal for as long as I've known him. I noticed that he had unfriended me. Our relationship had not soured in any way, so I checked with mutual friends and they all had been unfriended. I emailed and called to no avail. I tracked him down a few months later, but it was a real scare.

Sad as it may seem, facebook would be the most effective way to announce my death, perish the thought.
I'm sorry about your friend. As to the messenger, I guess I don't see the value in timeliness for something like this. I'm not arguing against Facebook per se, but I wouldn't list the immediacy of this kind of knowledge as being a plus. We have gotten so accustomed to instant gratification that the thought of knowing of a friend's death several hours after it happens feels like we've been ripped off or something. The same applies to election results and many other things. We really, actually don't need to know things as quickly as we have convinced ourselves that we do. To be clear, I'm including all of us here--our society as a whole--not you.
I am sorry you lost her. She sounds like a fun and interesting person. I suppose no way is a good way to find out about the death of someone you love.
So sorry for your loss. This social media is a new way to deal with timeless situations.
My High School was very tight and one of our classmates was dying from cancer. He chronicled the chemo in blog posted on FaceBook. His ghost account did not disappear for months after he died.
I'm very sorry for your loss. I am glad you got to see her again. It would be shocking to read something so unexpectedly devastating in such an impersonal environment. Facebook is very good for connecting and maintaining connections with long-lost friends and relatives--I guess this is the downside.
I hear of this happening a lot. Sorry it happened to you and super sorry for your friend and her family.
Thanks all for your kind and thoughtful comments. This is something we all have in common, and its something we need to think about and plan for the sake of those we'll leave behind.

I found this link posted by OS user Charlie Thornton in the post "Death and Facebook" by Librarienne. It's an informative article on what we can do to prepare our digital identities for our eventual demise.

Thanks again,
Oh God, Bonnie. That's awful. I'm so sorry for your loss.

That's something else we need to remember - if it bleeds it leads, sure. But every time someone is reported as passed on in the news, friends and family are mourning.

My thoughts are with you.
Rosemary, first of all my sincere condolences to your friend's family and to you. There no good way of finding about such sad news. You've raised some thought provoking questions in your post, as well as paying a very touching tribute to your friend. ~R~
Love your passion. Just the other day a friend of mine saw me with my cancers and told me I looked like crap. He died last Tuesday, dropped dead of a heart attack. I learned about it ten minutes after it happened via another friend who said, he had just said he was worried about you and then he was gone.

Don't worry about me, I've made my peace with God. May your friend rest in peace too.
Wow, what a shocker, TS. You never know, huh? I would almost prefer knowing, with a longer illness, though I wouldn't wish your struggle with cancer on anyone. At least it gives you time to prepare yourself and your loved ones.

We're all pilgrims on the same road to the same destination. Take care, and good thoughts for you.
I am so sorry for your loss. I know what it's like to have meaningful long-distance relationships, and I can't imagine how it would feel to learn about the loss of one of my friends this way - or any way. Your post made me shed tears of sympathy for you. My condolences.
I can understand your pain. Sorry for the loss.
Facebook is at once a good thing and a bad thing. Finding out this way must have been difficult beyond belief. Sorry for your loss. This was very well written and I appreciated how you took us through the situation. R
Death tends to be shocking, no matter how prepared we are for it, and no matter how the news is received. I think that Facebook allows people to stay in better touch about many things, death included.

Personally I've found it mush more disturbing over the years to discover that someone has died in the past, without me knowing at all.
Your story, and the many conundrums of social media, feel very present. I'm torn about how to feel about using FB (or any social media) for bad news. It is a new model of communication, and maybe it was easier for Leslie's family to announce her death in one broadcast, rather than having to track down individuals and explain over and over. Like another person commented, at least you were able to find out in a timely manner and could attend her memorial.
So very sad to lose a friend. I was searching for my husband's friend/bandmate last week on Facebook and learned of his suicide. Devastating.
Really rough to find out that way although there are worse: like from the person's relatives because you never saw the obituary.
It is always difficult to figure out who to call - one does one's best but there are always people who get left out . One of my friends never found out that my significant other died until about a year later from another mutual friend. He never contacted me and I guess that friendship is by the boards due to his unnecessary embarassment.
Well written piece, good work good tribute.
I'm sorry for your loss.

I'll shift direction here and say this is also, perhaps, a wake-up call to anyone who has never had pneumonia. It kills. It usually kills people who are frail (the elderly) but even a strong, healthy young person faces a slow recovery. I and and a fellow self-employed writer friend both ended up in the hospital in recent years with pneumonia due to overwork. It's not an illness to dismiss or tale lightly, and it is very little discussed or understood-- certainly when compared to cancer or heart disease.
Sorry about your friend and it is sad to learn about something like that on Facebook.