A few years ago, one of my distant cousins added me on Facebook.
Come to find out, he wasn't that distant, at least by my family's standards. He was one of my mother's first cousin. His late father was a bishop and my great uncle, one of my grandmother's 13+ siblings (the plus because she had some half siblings and I never quite know where they were in the count). My memories of this uncle were attending his church at the 1996 family reunion of my grandmother's family.
It's customary for black family reunions to conclude on Sunday, with a church service. And there are so many pastors and preachers and bishops in my extended family, it made sense that it would be at one of the family patriarch's church.
I remember taking a big family picture during that family reunion. At that time, everyone but one of my mother's younger sisters who died in a car accident years before, was alive. I was 11 years old. I was surrounded in people dressed mainly in white, I think, it must have been after church and everyone was dressed in pastels after a summer service. As we were all together, taking that picture that day, I had a virtual out-of-body experience, one of the few times in my life I had one of those. It's what I think heaven must feel like. I was surrounded by generations and generations of my family, my blood, knowing that everyone there was related to me or married to one of my relatives. It was magic, the sun was shining brightly, I didn't have a mosquito bump to scratch on my body, and nothing could have been more perfect than that moment we took a huge portrait.
My cousin and his son were probably in that picture with me. That's probably the only picture we have together.
Anyway, this cousin who friended me on Facebook was a pastor himself, like his late father and his late brother. I didn't remember him specifically, but he knew we were family. I accepted his friendship and proceeded to see all of his updates on facebook. I think we have been Facebook friends for two years. He'll post Bible quotes, posted the progress on the building of his new church, posted many, many pictures of his wife, who he is obviously crazy about, and post pictures of his children. He had two children, a son and a daughter. His son was married with two children, also a son and daughter.
I saw pictures of his grandchildren accompanying him at church, saw updates of his children preaching at his church, saw their family pictures, saw when his daughter's boyfriend proposed, saw pictures of his son with his children. Theirs were just a part of the many smiling faces and family antics that graced my Facebook on a daily basis.
Seeing how perfect my cousin's family looked, I did wonder about those studies that state that Facebook actually makes us more depressed. No one uploads unsmiling pictures or talks about their struggles that much. That is against social media etiquette, after all, to paint a depressing picture. If you have issues and need help, you seek help in real life and don't bring everyone else down. Facebook is not a venue for you to seek counseling.
So what are you left with, if that's the attitude? Happy, smiling pictures, children with grandparents, videos of cats, pregnant bellies, diplomas, that kind of thing.
It's enough to make me, without an engagement ring on my hand, without my wedding pictures, without a pregnant belly, without babies to play with or grandchildren to give my parents feel a little bit behind at best.
And then, Saturday night, as I was at my SO's house scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed for the day. My SO was out with a friend and I was supposed to go pick him up in a few minutes. In 15 minutes to be exact, so I had time. I scrolled through the newsfeed and saw my cousin's status.
His son had been robbed, shot and killed that morning, and he was asking for prayers.
Immediately, I stopped breathing. I stopped breathing, and I got the same burning, hot taste in the back of my mouth that I do when confronted with my specific phobias, those that I cannot pronounce because it will cause that feeling. But this wasn't one of my specific phobias. I don't have a phobic reaction to thinking of my family being murdered, because it usually does not happen.
My cousin was killed on Saturday, and I found out on Facebook.
I couldn't believe it. I wanted to believe that it was a ill-begotten joke. I wanted to believe that it was maybe like that South African pastor who convinced his congregation to eat grass. In a flash I thought it was maybe my cousin speaking the unspeakable to see how his congregation would come together to support him. But it went on for painful seconds too long. I saw the responses, I knew.
And I couldn't believe it.
I scrolled back through my cousins pictures to see where the entire family had just done a photo shoot weeks before during the Christmas season. And there my cousin was, with his parents and sister, with his sister alone, with his own wife and kids. And that burning continued to drip down my throat. I had to swallow it.
My cousin, who I maybe met once in real life and didn't remember, whose picture I saw at least every week, scrolling through my newsfeed, didn't exist anymore.
He was a good man, provided for his family, was an active member in his father's church, was a believer, and he was. He's not anymore.
I told my cousin that we would pray for his family and that I would pass it on. I called my parents next, since they do not have a Facebook.
I feared picking my SO up that night. I prayed heavily that I keep my focus. I didn't want to die in a car accident. I felt this way because life felt so much more precarious when such a God-fearing young man was murdered so suddenly, his life ending in medias res. I dreamed about my cousin and how his death must have been all night that night. I dreamed of him being given time to run away, him running frantically before being shot in a field.
But this was the city, and there were no fields. He was called into the hospital early to help with a transplant in the wee hours of the morning. His car was in the shop so he took the bus to get there. On his way to the bus stop, someone robbed him, shot him in the chest, and left him for dead. And he died.
Facebook is not the same for me anymore. I can't read an article about calculating your likelihood of dying this year that was posted by one of my friends. Pictures of people's families seem dark now. Like, anyone could die at any time. And life seems more precarious now, even more than it did for me before. As I spoke to my SO about the possibility of continuing to work in inner city community health centers, he cautioned me, saying that he didn't want me to not come home one day.
And usually I would have scoffed at this comment, that I would be fine. But one of our MAs did push an intruder out of her car one day as she was leaving work. And I do walk to a pretty desolate parking lot at the end of work each day. And there have been murders in my neighborhood...
So what happens when Facebook is tragic? You see that life goes on and people are unaware and woefully unable to be empathic when someone loses a family member. And it hurts. There are little bits of light, but every time I see a post from that family, it's like darkness. It's pain, it's grief beyond measure that will not be captured in pictures posted on anyone's wall because no one posts pictures of people crying, of death, of bodies, of blood, of sorrow, of mourning.
And I find myself grieving the death of family, a man I would not have known of if his father had not friended me two years ago on Facebook.