real life

'I discovered my friend had died via Google.'

When I want to know the answer to something, I turn to Google. Google is knowledge at your fingertips – full of useful and not-so-useful information. Whether it’s research for an article, catching up on current news, or poring over food ideas (read: killing time), I invariably ‘Google’ it.

I happily used Google to diagnose my first pregnancy, but I wasn’t prepared for the day it delivered devastating news about a close friend.

When I was in my early twenties I lived in Vancouver for a year. The city had a magnetism that seduced me – mountains, beaches, stunning landscapes and natural beauty every direction you looked. Plus, I was young, single and free; the perfect formula for adventure.

I first met John at a downtown nightclub shortly after I arrived. Captivated by my accent, he told me he had lived in Australia a few years prior and loved it. He was interested in who I was, why I was there and what I wanted out of life. He had a quick wit delivered with confidence and just the right amount of cheek. I liked him immediately. He asked me for my phone number that night and when I asked for his in return, he told me he didn’t have a phone. I later found out that he had given up his mobile phone so he could sponsor a child.

John was studying to be an actor, and was full of enthusiasm for life. When he wasn’t at acting classes he was learning a new language, dancing the Salsa or helping people. He was a philosopher, a deep thinker, and an all-round good guy with looks that promised an on-screen career. We formed a quick and natural connection and I felt certain I’d made a friend for life.

We kept in touch after I left Vancouver and emailed each other regularly for years. It was always the highlight of my day when I received his emails, which were often funny and a little flirtatious. He asked me to send him a couple of Australian exports: Tim Tams and Lynx deodorant. He was convinced it was Lynx that made the ladies wild for him in Australia.

As things happen, our emails gradually became less frequent but we held onto our connection. Then, one day my email to him bounced back. His account had been closed. I was surprised and confused. Perhaps he had a new email address, but why wouldn’t he have told me?

Unwilling to let our friendship go, I turned to Google to track him down. But with John as a first name and an equally common surname the volume of results was overwhelming. He was a helicopter pilot so I thought that would narrow down my search, but it was still difficult.

And then I came across a search result that made my heart stop. It appeared to be an obituary for a John from Vancouver, dead at 32. Paralysed I dared not click the link immediately. Surely this was not him. There would be a number of John’s that could have died. But even as I pleaded for it not to be true, I knew it was him.

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Trembling, I clicked on the link and there was his picture. His beautiful, smiling face staring back at me. His online obituary had hundreds of tributes, each one devastating, each one full of praise for the humble, kind, generous man that he was. My heart pounded painfully through my chest, urgent and hurt. He had died in a tragic accident almost a year prior and I had not known.

Further search results revealed John’s kind heart, even after it had stopped beating. A newspaper headline read: “Even in death, Vancouver pilot saves lives”. John’s organ donations had saved five lives on the day he lost his.

Listen: For anyone going through grief. (Post continues…)

It is hard to process death when you are oceans away. Grief that is unshared is lonely and hard to navigate. My isolation was compounded not only by distance but also by time. I had to grieve on my own, on a different timeline and without the support of mutual friends in Australia. While an online legacy book provided some comfort, it did little to alleviate my acute sadness.

In death, there is often celebration; a service to attend, a life to collectively honour and the opportunity for a final farewell. A ceremony is an important part of processing death and I had missed it all.

While the internet gave me important information, it could not offer the human connection that a phone call from a friend or relative could. Although I managed to track down his sister and parents to offer my condolences, they were a year down the path of acceptance by the time I found out.

Death that is digitally delivered offers little closure. That my friend died in tragic circumstances never fulfilling his life long dreams to be on stage and have a tribe of kids is still, ten years on, very hard to accept.

I still think of John. Not every day now, but regularly enough that he is never too far away. Every time I see Lynx deodorant in the supermarket, I think of him and smile. I hope he’s wearing his Lynx, dancing the salsa and dazzling the ladies wherever he may be. He dazzled me.

I miss you, mate.

Michaela Fox is a freelance writer, blogger and mother. She has three young daughters and sometimes wonders why she had them in under three years! She is hoping that short-term pain results in long-term gain. You can follow her on Twitter, join her on Facebook or read her honest musings on motherhood at Not Another Slippery Dip.

Have you ever found out anything personal via the Internet? Let us know in the comments below.

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