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Mourning Becomes Connected

PALO ALTO – My close friend Kris Olson died last week. It wasn’t after a long illness, or even after a car crash. She just went to bed at home one night, and was dead when her son tried to wake her in the morning. No drama, no long goodbyes, just…nothing.

I heard about it two days later from my brother, by e-mail, who heard from a friend of his. Then I got a couple of e-mails from other friends, forwarding messages from people I didn’t even know, with a few cc’s to some familiar names. I called a friend and got a few sparse details: Kris’s husband was away but had hurried back. And no, there was absolutely no warning. No signs. No health issues, except that a few years back she broke her arm catching a football.

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Until I had these conversations, I didn’t really believe that Kris had died. And then there were those confirming e-mails. I had seen her just last month: alive and vivid as usual. We went to her hairdresser, where she chatted while I had my hair cut. We went shopping at the Stanford shopping center, and had soup for lunch, sitting outside in unusually chilly weather because the eateries were crowded.

She was her usual self: cheerful, full of plans for her children, her bird watching, her consulting work. Kris was smart but unpretentious. She loved gossip, but she could always forgive a sinner. She had worked at Apple in marketing in the early days and had probably told Steve Jobs off a few times.

It wasn’t until later in the day that I went to her Flickr account to see her photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kristenolson/ .   I was struck by the next to last: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kristenolson/4241087527/ – a bird flying free, in sharp focus against a fuzzy backdrop of sea and sky. But that wasn’t Kris, fleeing some kind of sad life. There was a better one: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kristenolson/4241806180 - a sharp-eyed red-shouldered hawk, solid and sturdy, gazing balefully at the camera. Sensible, kind, but no pushover.

Then I went to Kris’s Facebook page, and started crying. Her Flickr feed is her art, a sort of memorial, but her Facebook page is her life. People have come to pay tribute. It is clear that she touched many lives, some of them semi-official, like the Mid-Peninsula Chapter of the National Charity League, but more of them just friends.

Our friendship had existed since 1982 and continued outside of Facebook; I don’t think I saw her page more than once or twice since we “befriended” one another a few years ago. We communicated by e-mail, but mostly face-to-face a few times a year, ever since we met. You wouldn’t have guessed from Facebook that, while she knew a lot of industry people, she wasn’t overly impressed with the “important” ones. She wasn’t unkind; she was just observant.

So what does Facebook mean in the face of death? Genes are one way for a person to live on: You can see shadows or glimpses of anyone in their children and other relatives. Their creations – whether diaries or Flickr photos, a hand-crafted cabinet or cheesecake recipes – are another way.

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But perhaps our most meaningful creations are the thoughts and changes that we leave in other people. These traces used to disperse and disappear over time after someone’s death. But now, with Facebook and other such tools, a person’s page is a place for those memories to gather. Kris knew lots of people, in many different contexts, and now they are sharing memories on her page.

Now memories of Kris remain alive and accessible from anywhere. Indeed, Kris will live on much more effectively – and more accessibly to all her friends. Through her, they may meet one another, or they may simply be able to recall her for themselves, even as they find out new things about her that they neglected to discover while she was alive. Yes, it does sharpen the memories, even as it eases the pain.