By Natalie Aho
Theories, both good and bad, abound about what this online community means for our society. I chart through these waters as a representative of churches and organizations like ABP. Recently, I learned how this online life enriches even the most basic of human experiences — losing a loved one.
During a trip to my parents who live 500 miles away, I visited my 90-year-old grandmother. She was recently in the hospital, and I soaked up every moment with her, laughing together over my son’s silliness in her living room.
Two weeks later, her health plummeted, and she ended up in ICU, first with pneumonia and then with rapid kidney failure. Unfortunately, I could not make an immediate trip back to Texas.
This experience was drastically different from when I lost my grandfather, her husband, just three years before. Now my mom and I have a digital connection. Every few hours, I would receive a text from my mom on any changes or doctor’s reports. I could send her a quick “thinking of you” message or “give her a kiss” response.
Somehow, this made the conversation easier to handle. I didn’t have to get choked up hearing my mom’s voice nor did she have to brace herself for a difficult phone call.
The messages slipped in and out of my day the way prayer slips in and out of my mind as I move about, a constant connection to a loved one in the middle of writing a memo at work or making a sandwich at home.
Compare my preparation to that of my cousins who were not receiving 140-character notices throughout their day. Many of them were taken aback by how quickly the end came. Some almost did not get to say goodbye before she lost mental connection with her surroundings.
I was never surprised. I knew her oxygen levels were digressing and fluids were increasing. I could see the end coming because I walked every step through my digital prayer.
The end came with a phone call. It had to. I needed to hear my dad’s voice crack. But as I went to bed that night, resolved that she would not make it to morning, I took comfort in the fact that I would know when it happened by the chirp of a text message.
Paul Byrd, a chaplain at Children’s of Alabama in Birmingham, Ala., has noticed the change in families dealing with death and grief in the digital age. He cited the online tool of www.caringbridge.com, a personalized patient information website for families to inform a large mass of people about the details of their loved one’s status.
“Many families use it as a cathartic journal for their own personal struggles and grief process,” Byrd said. “Online connections through Caring Bridge and other blogs have become instrumental in giving families strength and in the beginnings of their healing process.
Atlanta pastor Kimberly Knight serves a progressive, post-denominational church that has been meeting solely in the online virtual world of Second Life. The folks who call the church home come from many different walks of life: young and not so young, churched and not-so-churched.
“I have spent many hours sitting with people from around the globe in their grief, confusion and frustration with God as real tragedy touches their lives beyond the screen,” Knight said. “Grief can cause such a deep chasm, not only in one’s own soul, but also between the grieving and the world around them. When the local church stops bringing casseroles, our online world offers a step out of normal time to allow people to process as long as they need.”
Indeed, communication has changed, almost unrecognizably. Our digital connections thread us into one another’s lives in ways we never thought possible. We do not have to be afraid or mourn what is behind us. We should embrace the attachment it provides from hundreds of miles away taking us straight into the hospital room. Digital grief provided me grace and peace when I needed it most. Thanks be to God.