Grieving when a Facebook friend dies

Ed Ellis
Ed Ellis

Many of my friends mourned Monday.

Their mourning started early in the morning and is likely to continue in the days, weeks and months to come. Maybe longer. It was the kind of day that leaves me wishing for something better to say than, “I’m sorry for your loss. You’ll be in my prayers.”

At 6:30 a.m., I received a message about someone who has been battling illness for several months and has been told she has months to live.

As tragic as that is, within a few hours, I read reports on Facebook about the death of Ed Ellis. Ed, who would have celebrated his 41st birthday today, died Sunday night in Chicago.

I met Ed a few years ago, when he was working for the Muscatine Community School District and serving as the pastor for a small church. We didn’t know each other well, but he was someone you couldn’t help but like and respect, which is clear from reading comments being posted on his Facebook page.

Ed bounced back from the experience of losing his job in Muscatine, eventually moving back to Chicago, where he was from, with his wife and their children. He had been working as an instructor at City Colleges of Chicago,

It will never fully make sense why good people like Ed die at a young age. We’re probably not supposed to understand why it happens. People of faith — for sure Christians, like Ed — tell themselves everything that happens is a part of God’s plan. I believe that, too, even though it never seems to fully sooth the anger and other emotions we feel when bad things happen to those we love.

In a message I received about the young woman with a likely terminal illness, the friend who sent the text said she feels overwhelmed and sad, shocked and angry.

I told her how sorry I was to hear the bad news, said I wished there was something better to say and added I’d pray for the best.

She said she wished there was a better way than a text message or private Facebook message to let her closest friends know what was happening. But she need not apologize because her closest friends understand. We’ve all experienced things we wanted others to know even if we didn’t really want — or know how — to tell them.

Once upon a time, I thought it was my duty as a newspaperman to tell the community when bad things happened to good people. It wasn’t a part of the job I enjoyed. Nor did most of the reporters whom I directed through the years to make calls they didn’t want to make in order to ask questions they didn’t want to ask.

I’ll never forget the time a young woman from Lincoln, Nebraska, died in a Minnesota accident when the van in which she was riding with a group of friends on a college trip crashed in a blizzard. I was assigned to call her dad, someone I knew because he was a reporter at a Lincoln radio station, and write a story about the fatal accident.

When he answered the phone, I introduced myself and apologized for calling, asked if he would answer some questions. He said it was OK, that I was only doing my job. We then both cried through the 10-minute interview, I hung up the phone and wrote the story about a young Nebraskan who died on a snowy road in Minnesota.

To some degree, newspapers and other traditional media still serve in the role of sharing with our friends and neighbors the news of when something bad happens to us. It’s news that our friends and neighbors want to know so they can support us by saying a prayer, fixing a supper or mowing our grass at a time when our grief makes it difficult to do anything.

Much of this sharing has moved to social media, which enables my friend to quickly share her sadness, shock and anger with her closest friends. It allows literally dozens, maybe hundreds, of people to show their support when a young woman in Chicago and her children lose their husband and father far too soon.

This is one of the very best attributes about social media. And no one should have to apologize for grieving in this way or for reaching out to friend who is grieving.