Scripting News: Online grieving.

When I went to my grandmother’s funeral, in Rockaway, in 1977, I was surprised at how people were laughing and exchanging gossip. It was a family event. She died young, at 66, so the family was still pretty large. My grandfather was there, even though they were divorced. I knew her pretty well, and I don’t think she would have approved all the laughter. But dead people are dead. A funeral can be the place where that fact sinks in for the first time, and people are entitled to express themselves however they want. As long as it doesn’t interfere with others expressing themselves, in their own ways.

When my uncle died, her son, many years later, I waited a day before writing about his passing. He had been a character on Scripting News, my blog. My uncle, along with Dan Gillmor and Jamis MacNiven, were the first people to use my Manila blogging software while it was in development in 1999. I often pointed to his site, and wrote about his adventures in Jamaica. But when he died, I didn’t feel I was ready to write about it publicly for a bit of time. Probably because he was so close in age to me, just ten years older. A role model for me. And someone whose death hit me hard. I wanted to learn something from it before writing about it. At first I was just dazed. Stunned. Speechless.

Then, when my father died, a number of years after that, I wrote about it the day it happened. It was one of the pieces I am most proud of. Short and simple, and deeply truthful. I don’t read it very often but when I do, I am reminded of the sadness, of the letting-go, of feelings that had been long held inside, becoming part of the past. In an instant. No longer issues. My father loomed large in my life. But I was ready to write about it because his death was a long time coming. We got a chance to talk about it, me and him. It still haunts me. But I didn’t need a lot of time to process it, before I could say what I had to say.

In family, and online, I’ve come to respect the way people grieve is different for everyone, as it was for people at my grandmother’s funeral, so many years ago. Everyone has a different process, and it could be different every time depending on who-knows-what. Death is something that I find impossible to understand. That’s why it’s so damned frightening. Maybe it’s no more unpleasant than taking a trip. Maybe god is merciful and death is a pleasurable release full of spritual oxytocin. There are reasons to believe this might be so. Maybe death is something that’s impossible to experience, much as we have no memory of existence from before conception? Death is a mystery, a horrifying one, if you love life. All the more horrifying if someone reaches a place where death is a choice they make. I find it especially hard to reach any conclusions about that.

When I was young, the father of the kids across the street, one winter day, killed himself in the basement of the house, with a gun. His son discovered the body. I’ve had a whole lifetime to process that event, and you know what — I still don’t have any wisdom from it. I don’t understand, and my guess is that I never will. And it’s hard to find anything meaningful to say about something you have no appreciation for.

I knew Aaron Swartz, not very well, but I did know him. I spent a fair amount of time yesterday reading his blog. Aaron was a voracious reader. And he really could write. And his ideas were good. I don’t think enough people read his blog. Maybe more will do so now. And to repeat an oft-repeated theme here, maybe we can do something to make sure that his blog remains online as long as there is a web, which hopefully is quite a long time.

What good can come from his death? I think we have to set more reasonable expectations for our brilliant young people. It’s true that Aaron was smart, and had a great capacity to learn. But he was just 26. And for many of the years we knew him, he was much younger. He was very much his age, emotionally, even if he had knowledge beyond his years. To expect so much of such a young person probably puts too big a weight on shoulders that aren’t prepared for it. I feel that there’s a connection between Aaron’s suicide and the suicide of Ilya Zhitomirskiy, one of the founders of Diaspora, and Gene Kan, who was one of the developers of Gnutella.

I’ve had to deal with my share of death in my life, and one message I get from every one of them, approached from any direction, is that the dead are dead. Expressing love for their memory, support for the person, doesn’t have much value, because they are not here to receive it. If you want to do something to honor a loved one’s memory, be loving and kind to people who are still alive. That’s the best thing you can do, always, every day.

PS: The shortened URL for this post is A message?

PPS: I didn’t put an image on this post because people have been very harsh about a smiley on a previous post that mentioned Aaron’s death.

  • This is part of what I mean about not judging people’s way of expressing grief.
  • In some cultures funerals are drunken celebrations with songs and sex. Life-affirming parties to honor a friendly soul who liked to have a little fun every once in a while.
  • But the Internet that has gravitated around Aaron’s soul is a very stern and gray one. Even puritan.
  • No matter. If I feel a sentence needs a smiley, then I’m putting a fucking smiley on it and if you don’t like it fuck you. 🙂

About Dave Winer

Dave Winer, 54, pioneered the development of weblogs, syndication (RSS), podcasting, outlining, and web content management software; former contributing editor at Wired Magazine, research fellow at Harvard Law School, entrepreneur, and investor in web media companies. A native New Yorker, he received a Master's in Computer Science from the University of Wisconsin, a Bachelor's in Mathematics from Tulane University and currently lives in Berkeley, California.
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