How Do We Grieve a Virtual Friend?

I knew her only by email, yet she was a real person whose death I mourn.

Posted Mar 23, 2013

I met Justin a year and a half ago. She explained that her name was actually Carolyn, and Justin was a nickname. It’s Justin, she clarified, not Justine. She was just finishing treatment for triple-negative breast cancer. Her tumor was small—1.3 cm—and she had no affected lymph nodes. Her prognosis was great.

She met me through my blog, took the initiative to email me, and we were immediately on our way to friendship. She seemed like the sort of woman with whom I would be actual friends if we weren’t separated by five states—I was in Iowa, she in California. We became virtual buddies instead.

We corresponded about diet and exercise and all the emotional issues of dealing with cancer, dealing with other people who are dealing with our cancer, remaining sane through it all, remaining healthy through it all.

Turns out you don't need to actually meet somebody in the flesh to care about them, to look forward to hearing from them, to share confidences and experiences. To consider them a friend.

Then, about six months after that first correspondence. Justin emailed me: The cancer had returned in her brain. In response, she headed to Maui and learned to surf. She slso had gamma knife surgery, which seemed successful.

But, a few months later, she began having peripheral vision problems, and it was clear the cancer was not being controlled. Her reaction to the news was to once again to go to Maui, where she and her husband rented a home for a month.

“I did not see this coming,” she wrote. “I thought I was doing so well.” I called her in Maui and she told me the doctor was putting her on chemo, which would be mailed to her there.

Ironically, my husband and I also had plans to go to Maui, but we would be there weeks later. If we had coordinated just a bit better, I would have been able to meet her, hug her in person. Meet her in two dimentions rather than one.

On February 22, I got a cheery note from her. “Just got results from brain MRI and PET-CT. The chemo is making a difference. Yes!!!!! I have been so worried but have a reprieve! Yes!” I responded with delight. Yay, the cancer was slowed.

But today, just slightly more than a month later, I got an email—I thought it was from Justin, but it was from her husband. “Justin died Thursday,” he wrote. “The cancer went to the lining of her brain. She fought it until the end.”

He thanked me for my friendship. I thanked him profusely for letting me know.  

His email was an immense kindness because, even though I considered her a friend, I was not actually connected to her in any way traditional human way—I did not actually even know how she looked, I had never met her husband or kids, we had no common friends. We shared a cancer diagnosis and a long line of emails and one phone call. 

But this friendship was real, even if it followed a trajectory undefined by normal human experience. I cried at the death of my friend, but I did not have the typical support nor the security of a standard process. I did not get to hug her husband, or let her children cry on my shoulder. I could not even bring soup or fresh bread. Her husband had no responsibility to me and could have never let me know.

There are no rules for these things.

Alone in Iowa, I can only imagine what is going on in California. My grief is solitary—my friends here have no idea who Justin was and why she mattered to me. My husband tries to get it and is supportive, but this is all theoretical to him. A rational man, he is also worried about what he would do if “something happened” to me. “How do I know who to contact?” he asked, knowing I have a network of virtual friends connected by a diagnosis, friends he will never meet, whose existence he knows little about.

We had one of those whacko conversations brought by cancer. I told him how to get onto my blog and my Facebook page, and he agreed to inform people, if he needed to. I explained where to find the file on my book, so he could let my editor know.  I have an entire digitized planet out there, revolving silently around my corporal one, separate but with its own essential reality and meanining. The two might eventually have to collide.

Social media and digital communications have let me connect with people like Justin, who become important to me beyond measure. But I still am left to grieve alone at my computer, which is the sphere in which the entire relationship existed.  There and in our hearts.