Established 1826 — Oldest College Newspaper West of the Alleghenies Dealing with loss in an online world

Last week’s wellness day was, for me, anything but well. After all, that was the day I found out that a friend of mine had passed away — a friend I had never met in person, but a friend nonetheless.

It’s no secret to anyone close to me that I have friends all around the world, but I’ve never met many of them in person. Since my senior year of high school, I have spent a fair amount of my free time coding web pages for a series of websites, and I have made so many friends through those experiences. 

There are some in the UK, some in the Netherlands, some in Canada, others in various countries in Asia and South America — but even if they lived 20 minutes from me, I still probably would never meet them. After all, I’ve grown up in an age where anything can happen with people you meet on the internet … including dangerous things, like kidnapping or murder.

These people, whom I affectionately refer to as “my coding friends,” may not know my name or where I live. But that doesn’t mean I’m not incredibly close with some of them.

They are always just a quick Discord message away if I want to complain about homework, figure out a code that’s stumping me or even just fool around with Discord bots for an hour. I don’t know these people personally, but in an age like today’s where everything from school to work to social media is online, they have still become some of my closest friends.

Which is why this past week has been so hard for me.

On Tuesday morning, I was at work when I received a Discord ping on my break from one of my bosses on a site for which I’ve been coding for the past two years. “I didn’t want you to just find out on site,” the message read. “Today we found out that H passed away on March 4th.”

H, whose on-site name I would rather not disclose, was one of my dearest friends on that site. We met two years ago when I first joined, and if it weren’t for her, I likely would have quit coding entirely and never looked back. 

After all, in online communities such as this one, there are a lot of amazing coders who can be very intimidating to a newbie like me. I could barely get anyone to throw two words my way, except for H. She was welcoming and sweet, took me under her wing and even gave me my on-site nickname of “Lasagna,” a code name by which I still go today. If I ever had a problem, whether it be coding-related or IRL (in real life), I could go to her for help.

When I found out that H had died, as I later told my mother on a tearful phone call, I think I went through all five stages of grief at once. 

First, I couldn’t believe it. Sure, H’s account had been inactive for the last few days, but everyone takes breaks, so I hadn’t thought anything of it. Not many people disclose their real ages on these sites, but I know that H wasn’t even 30 yet. It’s hard to believe it when anyone dies so young.

Then I was furious, because as that message from my on-site boss went on to tell us, H had apparently been fighting a battle with cancer since before I had even met her. Naturally, I was furious with the disease, but also with H herself. She had never told me or any of our coding teammates about this. 

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Maybe if she had told us, we would have been able to prepare for the inevitable, instead of being hit with this horrible news out of nowhere. I know that she did it because she didn’t want to be pitied, but I still wish she had told me.

It made it worse when I checked our DMs together and found that the last message I ever privately sent her was complaining about an illness I’d come down with last December. She listened to me complain, offered me advice and never once said a word about her own troubles. She was just that kind of person. We joked together about how time seemed to be moving so slowly lately, and that was it. 

Bargaining is a little hard to do when the person you love is already dead, but I did sit and stare at the little grey dot next to H’s Discord name for a little while even as the tears were running down my face. I begged and pleaded with the universe to please, please just let it turn green. Let her log on one last time so I can say good-bye.

Of course, that didn’t happen.

I spent the rest of my day in a funk, and almost a week later, I’m still not OK. 

Thirty years ago, the idea of having met someone on a computer and not knowing their name or location but still calling them a friend would have been considered insane. Even now, my parents are naturally a little worried every time I mention an online friend, because who knows if they are who they say they are? I’ve even had some people tell me that my coding buddies aren’t “real friends” because I don’t “really” know who they are in real life.

But in today’s world, you don’t have to know someone’s name or what they look like in order to call them a friend. Social media and the internet have seen to that. We form friendships, these truest bonds from person to person, over someone’s personality, their interests and their love. 

So I scoff at the idea that I don’t know these people in “real” life. Our online lives can be just as fulfilling as our day-to-day ones. I might not have ever spoken to H, but I know that she was a real friend to me, and in the end, that’s what matters.

Rest easy, H. I hope time is moving faster for you now.